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?

Advertisements