Free agents and the future of work

Today I don’t blink when clients or friends tell me they aren’t after the traditional employer-employee workplace arrangement. For many, the idea of working a 9-5 job, 40+ hours per week for a single employer sounds stifling. This wasn’t the case even 20 years ago. What happened?

Recently, the idea of being a “free agent” has gone mainstream. Articles vetting this idea are popping up in newspapers and magazines more and more (See the Star Tribune’s “Millennials thinking outside the cubicle”).

My first clear exposure to the idea that traditional employer-employee relationships might be shifting happened in 2012 in Salt Lake City.

I was at a conference for career services people and attended a session where we talked about how career professionals should advise students who are seeking out commission-only work, contract-based assignments, or who want to work seasonally or in part-time positions to accommodate other interests and goals.

This requires letting go of my own biases and getting in touch with shifts in how people and organizations think about work so I can help clients apply that information as they evaluate their own options.

Here is my list of the top 4 forces that I believe are fueling this trend:

1. The millenial generation

  • Millenials, those born approximately 1982 to the early 2000s, grew up in volatile times.
  • For many, 9/11 was a generation-defining moment.
  • While sometimes called “Generation Me”, they do exude a drive and passion for making the world a better place. For many, this fuels more passion for social entrepreneurship than entering the established “race to the top.”
  • They have grown up in a time when national student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion, outpacing consumer loan debt in the U.S.
  • The Great Recession necessitated that many of these young professionals take up a “portfolio” of work when their ideal jobs were scarce.

2. The rise of technology, the share economy, and rapid innovation

  • The online horizon is long, with ample opportunities for contributing via blogs, creating your own website, and creating a digital identity and brand.
  • Accessing markets for products and services is easier with the help of the web.
  • Online payment systems like the Square credit card swipe tool
  • The growing share economy makes it easier to both outsource tasks to others or make money on the side to fuel your passions (think Task Rabbit or Uber).

3. The minimalist movement

  • The simple living movements are gaining momentum as a growing number of people choose to “opt out” of the ideal of a large house and enough cars for each driver.
  • Entire shows are popping up featuring “tiny house enthusiasts” who desire to minimize expenses and maximize experience by choosing to live in homes 1,000 square feet or less, many under 500 square feet.

4. Infrastructure to support the “free agent”

  • It isn’t so lonely to go it alone. You can now join a co-working organization and pay membership dues to share office space and amenities previously only available in larger corporations.
  • Online groups help people connect and find one another for networking, brainstorming, and ongoing professional development.
  • Free online course sites, like Coursera, help people find new training and build new skills in an on-demand format.
  • Unions are even forming for freelancers.
  • Finally, health care reform means many Americans are beginning to feel safer uncoupling themselves from their employer-sponsored health care plans that may have previously kept them in gigs that were less than ideal.

What are your thoughts? Are you a “free agent” now or is it your goal? Do you worry about the risk of unstrapping yourself from the perceived security of a large employer?  What technology, tools, or services have made it easier for you to go it alone? What has surprised you in the process?

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Are we asking the wrong questions? (Part I)

s-LOST-largeFrequently I find myself sitting across the table from a college student who is anxious and eager to have me help them answer burning questions about major and career choice. The conversation is different depending on the student, but many of them have similar struggles finding their path:

  • What is the “right” major?
  • What jobs can you actually do with this major?
  • Would this major or that major be better?
  • What about a minor? Which will make it easier for me to get a job?
  • And the dreaded… My parents want me to do this, but I am not sure. What do YOU think?

At the heart of all of these questions is a longing to know: How will I decide? Will I be okay? 

I have great compassion for students struggling to find their place. I remember not long ago sitting in a career coach’s office with similar questions, although mine were maybe a little different. My struggle to find career satisfaction was less about not knowing what inspired me, and more about figuring out how I could get paid to do work that I enjoyed. In many ways I still struggle to feel like I am fully able to realize all my professional potential and interests through my day job. More on that another day.

Yet recently, I find myself pushing students and prompting them to consider whether they are really asking the right questions at all? Could it be that we aren’t even close to the target? 

The world of work has changed dramatically and traditional-aged “millenial” college students face an uncertain and thrilling new terrain. Regrettably many of their coping skills are not sufficient to help them weather the challenge. (For more on this see Brooke Donatone’s recent Slate article: Why Millenials Can’t Grow Up).

So what are we to do? Shouldn’t we push these students to ask tougher questions? The kinds of questions that will help them find their place, clarify their purpose, and contribute their greatest gifts in service of the world?

Of course we should.  

Frameworks for pushing students to consider bigger questions abound, yet one particular initiative has captured my attention this week. The Association of America’s Colleges and Universities (AACU) has launched an initiative called Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). What intrigues me about LEAP is that it brings together educators and employers, challenging both groups to consider what skills and qualities are most needed to meet the demands of our global community and economy in this time. Consistent with other surveys, LEAP suggests that the skills needed to thrive in this new landscape extend beyond narrow professional training.

By defining Learning Outcomes, High-Impact Practices, and Assessment strategies, the LEAP initiative outlines a framework that career coaches, academic institutions, families, employers and other concerned groups can use to challenge our nation’s young professionals to consider bigger questions about what meaningful work will mean to them.

Further, they highlight successful partnerships between colleges/universities and employers that demonstrate how mutual interests can be achieved through careful planning. One of the most interesting results of this effort found that “93% of employers say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major” (Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities- Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) Employer-Educator Compact, April 2013).

If undecided and exploratory students (and working adults, for that matter) are struggling to figure out how to decide, wondering if they will be okay, trying to sort out who they are and who they wish to be… Is the question really, “Which major is right?” Absolutely not.

So what questions should we be asking? And where can we find the answers that students, families, and our communities truly need to thrive in this uncertain space? 

Stay tuned for a future blog post as the conversation continues in Part II. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

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