I grew up in the 1950s when many of our parents worked for a single employer their entire lives. Our parents knew that if they were loyal to that employer, the employer would show loyalty in return. William H. Whyte wrote his classic business book, The Organization Man in 1956. Whyte had conducted extensive interviews with the CEOs of major American corporations, and a central tenet of the book was that the average Americans subscribed to a collectivist ethic rather than to the prevailing notion of rugged individualism. Keep in mind that many of the individuals Whyte interviewed were World War II Veterans, members of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, and the parents of the boomer generation including many of our readers who are now approaching their mid-sixties.
Whyte’s book was the first to shine a spotlight on risk-averse business executives who faced no consequences and could expect jobs for life as long as they made no egregious missteps. This was the business model I became familiar with when I started my counseling work with lawyers in transition some 30-years ago as a Career Counselor at one of the law schools near my home. I learned to accept that lawyers are often slow to respond to change, so I understood why so little had changed during the boom years of the last part of the 20th century.
The Emergence of the Free Agent Nation
In the early part of the 21st Century, many business sectors of the economy began observing changes in interest in their talent pool. For the first time, individuals were moving away from a corporate focus to be more centered on family and self. Many employers were beginning to see a growing interest in more of a “free-lance” economy. This ideal emphasizes freedom, work satisfaction, flexibility, accountability, self-defined markers of success, and being authentic in your own eyes.
Daniel Pink, a former White House speech writer and Contributing Editor to Fast Company magazine expanded the dialogue about the rapidly growing free-lance economy. In his 2001 book, Free Agent Nation, Pink showed how free agents were becoming a large and growing share of the work force. He described some of the economic forces contributing to this phenomenon, but more importantly, he found that free agents themselves explained their reasons for leaving the corporate world in psychological terms: a desire for freedom, authenticity, accountability, and flexible concepts of success. In my work in counseling senior lawyers, free agency presented individuals with a greater sense of renewal and hope.
The term, free agent, is borrowed from sports. It describes the players who are most talented and for whom other teams bid. As a result, they often command enormous salaries, perks, and influence. The term has been applied to people like free-lance software programmers who are sought after because of their special expertise. Today, the term, free agent is applied much more broadly to describe all those who rely on project assignments outside of being directly and permanently employed by someone else. This group includes experienced lawyers and other professionals who are choosing to become free agents, because they desire greater freedom from the traditional workplace demands as well as their own renewed sense of purpose for work and life itself.