The revolt of the wage slave

It's better to take out your own trash than to spend a life working for the Man, says former Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink.

Published May 31, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Today in Silicon Valley, "I'm an independent consultant" sounds more and more like a euphemism for "I'm out of work." Where just a few years ago hired-gun programmers, graphic designers and marketing consultants jacked up their prices and turned away clients, now they're scrounging for business just like everyone else.

But don't confuse the economic boom times and labor market crunch that made it easy and lucrative for so many techies to become their own bosses with the broader reasons for the independent-worker phenomenon. Dan Pink, author of the new book "Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live," argues that there's a lot more to "free agents" than the glorified tech workers that the dot-com boom made front-page news.

Free agents include everyone from the creative director who quits her job at a big ad agency to sell her services back to her former employer and other clients at three times her former salary to the stay-at-home mom who starts a home-based "microbusiness" to make money while spending more time with her kids to the perma-temp office worker who toils for years at the same company but can't get health insurance or other benefits.

In 1997, Pink quit his job as a speechwriter for then Vice President Gore, and took a cross-country road trip with his wife and young daughter to perform his own unofficial census of independent workers. Now, with the release of his new book, he's both a member and a chronicler of the free-agent nation. In Chicago, where he was giving a presentation at consulting firm Arthur Andersen, Pink spoke to me from his cellphone -- in true free-agent fashion -- from the city's Navy Pier, with seagulls cawing and wind whistling in the background.

Do you think the appeal of going independent has dimmed now that when people aren't leaping out of companies, they're getting pushed out by layoffs? Has the glamour of free-agent work lost its sheen?

Maybe a touch. But the most important question to ask yourself is, compared to what? Compared to working at Dell, which just laid off 10 percent of its workforce? Compared to working at Cisco, which just laid off gigantic numbers of people? There isn't long-term security in any realm.

Why do you think more people are striking out on their own? Does it represent some kind of failure in the way that companies work now? Is working for the Man really that bad?

It's partly that. Companies really did poison the well by treating workers so badly, especially in the late '80s and early '90s with endless downsizing and layoffs, and treating people like commodities. I think that a lot of people felt incredibly scorched and are going to be fearful about going back close to the flame.

We had this age of corporate paternalism where corporations took care of people. You had companies like Kodak that called itself "The Great Yellow Father," the phone company that called itself "Ma Bell." And by the early 1990s that was over. IBM used to have a no-layoffs policy. No matter what happened, it said, "we'll never lay anybody off." And then in the early '90s it laid off something like 50,000 people. There was a big "Never mind!"

Technology is obviously part of it, too. It's Karl Marx's revenge, because workers can now own the means of production. The tools that you need to create wealth used to be extremely large, expensive and difficult for one person to operate. Now, they're the exact reverse.

But big reality check for all of you liberal arts majors out there: Roughly one out of four workers is a free agent; that means three out of four still have regular jobs. Traditional jobs are not going away. This is not the end of the job [market].

On your road trip, what was the most unexpected thing you found?

People weren't saying: "I can own the means of production. I can go do this myself." They weren't saying: "I can make more money because power has shifted to the individual." They were saying: "I'm miserable." "I don't like working for an idiot boss." "Office politics are getting me down." "I can't be my authentic self at work." "I have no freedom." "You know what? Money isn't everything. Promotions aren't everything." "I want to define success on my own terms." "I miss my family."

I thought that this was an economics class, but it turned out to be a kind of psychology and theology class.

What is the most common misperception among wage slaves about people who work for themselves?

That everyone is kind of kicking back and watching "Oprah" and wearing bunny slippers and not really doing any work, when in fact the bigger problem among a lot of free agents is overwork. One guy said to me: "The worst part about being a free agent is that you have to work 24 hours a day; the good part is you can pick which 24 hours."

Also, there is an incredible misperception that these people are miserable or have been forced into it. And that is just flatly not true. There are some hassles to working for yourself; there is a lack of security. But you know what? There are bigger hassles working for the Man, and there's no security there either. Working for yourself, you have to be the CFO and the accountant, and you empty the garbage. And that can be a drain. But again people ask themselves: "Compared to what?" You can have a terrible boss and earn less than what you're worth and have somebody empty the garbage, or you can work for yourself, earn your market value and empty the garbage yourself.

Some of your critics have suggested that this whole "free agency" thing is an elitist phenomenon that only benefits the cream-of-the-crop marketing managers, graphic designers, software stars and so on. What about the office temp slaves and perma-temp factory workers and outsourced janitors?

There are plenty of people who are free agents who are not college educated -- there are people who are plumbers and electricians. The construction industry operates on the free-agent model. Those are very skilled professions. Anybody with skills is rewarded in this kind of market, and anybody who isn't is punished. That has very little to do with free agency. Talented people have an enormous number of options in this kind of economy compared to previous economies, and people who are less skilled face far higher hurdles.

That's why a lot of the unionization efforts are taking place among low-wage free agents. One of the biggest labor-organizing successes in the last 10 years was of independent home healthcare workers in Southern California, who are low-wage free agents and who wanted that collective action to boost their standing in the workplace. One of the people in the book, Grandma Betty, was 68 years old, jobless and pensionless, and became a free agent.

If you look at the numbers, there are about 30 million or so free agents, and about 3 million or so are temps. And even if you stipulate that most of those temps are miserable, you're talking about [only] 10 percent of free agents. I would say that that is a better average than in corporate America. If you did a survey of corporate America and asked: "How many of you despise what you're doing and would like to get out?" I would say that you'd hit much higher numbers than if you took the same survey among independent workers. I'd bet the mortgage on that, actually.

Is this a youth phenomenon?

We're about to hit a massive labor shortage, and so we're going to have this large, experienced and incredibly healthy pool of older Americans who are going to be able to dictate the terms of their employment. They're not going to want to go back and work full time, but they might want to work part time as free agents. So our notions of old age and retirement might change.

People want some kind of challenge in their life, they want some kind of purpose in their lives, and it's hard to find that in total leisure. That said, I don't think that people are going to be working full time until they're 90. But I do think that you're going to see these part-time free agents among older Americans.

The other thing is just pure demographic and market forces. We are going to run out of "working age" people. Suddenly, we're going to look around and say, "We've got all this work to do, and we don't have young people to do it. Hey, wait a second, there are these aging boomers. They're remarkably healthy for older people, and they're willing to work part time. Sign them up!"

Corporate recruiters are going to be going to retirement homes, having career fairs at AARP meetings. At that point, Americans are going to have incredible bargaining power in the labor market.

Some of the frustrations of working for oneself are caused by the current healthcare and tax system. But how will free agents ever band together to change those things if it's an ethic of individualism that drives them?

We have 44 million people without health insurance in this country. To me that's a structural problem -- in part, because more people are working as free agents, but we have a healthcare system that's designed for employees.

We get health insurance in this country through a job. No other country in the world does it that way. There's no moral or economic logic behind the arrangement. It's a historical accident. When Roosevelt froze wages in the early 1940s, to get around it, employers said, "Oh, what can we offer? Hey, we'll offer health insurance." A couple of changes to the tax code and voilà! Now we get health insurance through our jobs.

A big obstacle is campaign finance. Fewer than one out of 10 Americans today works for a Fortune 500 company. Fewer than one out of 10 private sector workers belongs to a labor union, yet our politics is still a pitched battle between big business and big labor, largely because of campaign contributions. There's not a free-agent PAC. There aren't squadrons of lobbyists on [Washington's] K Street lobbying for tax breaks for free agents. I do think that eventually some enterprising politician will realize that this is a pretty awesome constituency.

What impact do you think the free-agent phenomenon has on aspects of life other than work?

The joining of work and family -- the industrial age created an artificial separation where you worked one place and lived another place, where you left your family behind to work. And now we're rejoining that.

People working at home changes the nature of neighborhoods a little bit. In the past we used to have these neutron bomb neighborhoods. During work hours, it looked like a neutron bomb had hit: The buildings were still standing, but all the people were gone.

Now, as more people work flexible schedules or work at home as free agents, you have a kind of revival of neighborhoods. It sounds apocryphal, but it really is true. My next-door neighbor in Washington is a free agent too. I've had them come over to borrow eggs, but they've also come over to borrow Post-its.

Think about Starbucks. Starbucks is all over this like a cheap suit. Starbucks just did a deal with Compaq and Microsoft to provide wireless Internet connections in its stores. Why? Because more and more independent workers and traditional workers are using Starbucks as a form of commercial real estate.

How do people deal with the blurring of work and home life, besides holding business meetings at Starbucks?

People sculpt boundaries in their own idiosyncratic ways depending on their circumstances. One guy I interviewed has a home office in a neighbor's house, because he needed what he called a "soft separation" between work and home. Some people will get an office outside of the house because they don't want to blur the boundaries too severely.

My office is in the attic of our house. I have a separate phone line. I don't bring my work to the second and third floor of our house; I keep it all in the attic. But if it's not that busy of a day, I'd rather have our 5-year-old daughter come into my office and plop down and start talking to me than some schmo from accounting: "Hey, ya busy? Want to do our NCAA pool?"

So people draw their own boundaries?

It's part of the anthropology of free agency that people instead of inheriting rituals from the traditional workplace establish their own rituals.

One guy I interviewed leaves his house, walks around the block and come back to his house, because that transition period helps him navigate these boundaries. Commuting is a pain in the butt, but it does offer predictable punctuation marks in your day.

There was a guy I met in Washington just the other day, a self-employed guy, and he used to organize this Christmas party for self-employed people. It's like the office Christmas party for people who don't work in an office.

But to me the greatest thing to escape is the office Christmas party -- and when you're groggy on Monday morning and someone cheerily bounds into your office and says: "How was your weekend?!"

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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