You and I, independent professional, solopreneur, freelancer – whatever you choose to call yourself, belong to the “free agent nation” popularized over a decade ago by the author and workplace guru Daniel Pink. For us, this is normal life. It’s what anyone with confidence in their abilities and a desire to make a worthwhile living doing things they enjoy does, isn’t it?
The Professional Escapee
There’s an important evolution in the huge movement towards a true ‘free agent nation’, and it’s the rise of the Professional Escapee. These are hugely experienced top managers and professionals from a variety of backgrounds who’ve gone to top schools and universities and done time at well known companies and yet choose to pursue freelance careers independent of the obvious corporate career path.
They’re increasingly trusted by corporations to do the sort of work that it would have been inconceivable to give to freelance consultants, because you’d only trust this to your permanent, trusted employees. The trend curve is definitely upwards and it’s a harbinger of the way all business will work in the future.
And why not? Many are refugees from big companies and law and consulting firms who value the autonomy and flexibility of this kind of work and find that the money is often better. Now add in the fact that you aren’t tied to an organisational agenda that doesn’t necessarily fit your own, and that you can leave behind the office politics, the endless meetings and the rigid hours. Bingo.
So why is it that the media still seem to be obsessed with reminding us that we are really all failures – that freelance careers for top earning professionals are still stigmatised? That we are gliding from one low paying contract to another. It is undoubtedly true that people have suffered immensely during the past recession and redundancy is not something I would wish on anyone. But, as it turns out, we humans are remarkably resilient, and in the face of a future that many know will never be the same, we are adapting to make it our own.
Time for a rethink
The way people think about careers, the corporation, and the economy will never again be quite the same.
What’s interesting is that this major transition is not all down to the recession. It’s as if there is a perfect storm of technological advance, the death of the contract that gave you job security in return for your loyalty, and a growing realisation that we all only have one life.
Companies are slow in waking up to this, and of course, in a ‘buyers market’ where jobs of any sort are scarce, they don’t have to try as hard. But as growing numbers of professionals decide that they prefer to work on their terms, companies are going to have to find new ways to work with the talented individuals that they need.
Besides, in a world where it is those companies that prove capable of continually innovating and changing course in a millisecond, why would you not put a flexible workforce at the heart of your business strategy?
We should be celebrating this shift. It’s going to liberate millions of people to enjoy fuller lives. But to make it happen we are going to have to rethink the way we view careers. As individuals, we need to take a more active role in managing ourselves and our work. We’ve got to understand that the old social contract between employer and employee is simply not around any more. And by continuing to hold onto the notion that it is, we are going to be disappointed every time when things don’t work out.
There will be howls of complaint, I know. Because in making that shift, some people will lose out. That’s why we have to think about this in the round and start planning the support structures and systems that will underpin this new way of working.