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. Recently, the term has been applied to people like free lance software programmers who are sought after because of their special expertise. In Free Agent Nation, the term is applied more broadly to describe all those who rely on project assignments outside of being directly and permanently employed by someone else. This group includes lots of professional free lancers as well as people who work through temporary agencies with few skills at deadly dull tasks.
The ideal in the 1950s was to work for one employer, to be loyal to that employer and to receive loyalty in return. Steady progress would follow as seniority grew. Keeping the ship afloat came before the individual's needs. This world was described in the classic book, The Organization Man by William H. Whyte, Jr. Since then the world has changed quite a bit, and Daniel H. Pink's Free Agent Nation is the conscious updating of the working ideal to reflect today's growing free lance economy. This ideal emphasizes freedom, work satisfaction, flexibility, accountability, self-defined markers of success, and being authentic in your own eyes. It's the ultimate of wanting to do good and to do well.
Mr. Pink draws on his own experiences, hundreds of interviews with free agents, qualitative surveys, and his review of the literature on this subject to weave together the best integrated story on how independent work is becoming a norm as well as an ideal in the United States. Mr. Pink's strength is that he is a great communicator. He deftly weaves his various sources into a tautly connected story that will make sense to anyone who reads it or has lived it. He connected quite a few dots for me that I have never thought of as being connected before.
The book will be of most value to those who are thinking about leaving traditional employment to become a free agent. Free Agent Nation does a good job of describing what the benefits are once you have made the shift. On the other hand, the book almost totally ignores the difficult transitions that most people go through. If you are looking for advice on how to make the shift, some of what is in here will help, but you would do well to talk to some people who are doing what you would like to do first in order to get their ideas on how to transition.
The book describes who the free agents are, estimates how many of them there are (a lot more than you probably suspect), how this work style emerged, and why people like it. Essentially, the model described here is a return to the agrarian model of a family growing its own food and always being in close touch. The main change is that people use technology to work from their own homes to meet their material needs rather than farming. Mr. Pink also connects this trend to the rise in home schooling, by showing the traditional school and university to be more similar to the factory model than today's society and economy.
The best part of the book for me was the description of how people are making free agency work and the problems they run into. Basically, loyalty is being reborn into loyalty to a rolodex of contacts and clients rather to an employer. An infrastructure is being built up to support free agents (from Kinko's to agents and coaches). Increasingly, two free agents head a family with children. In these cases, the children (such as Mr. Pink's daughter) don't understand that some people have offices outside the home.
The weakest part of the book is his scenarios of the possible future for free agents. He is closest in his estimation that free agency will probably eliminate retirement to the rocker on the porch. It is less clear to me that high schools and prestigious universities will be eliminated by home education and on-line learning. His speculations about being able to float debt publicly are probably pretty accurate. I'm skeptical that individual IPOs will become frequent for the average free agent. On the other hand, a benefit of extreme scenarios is to stimulate your thinking. Mr. Pink's work is very helpful in that sense, and towards the end of the book he suggests that this was his purpose in proposing the scenarios.
Mr. Pink's optimistic imagination makes this book much more lively than how the same subject would be treated by an academic. For example, the book opens with a scene in which he becomes ill as a result of exhaustion after meeting with vice president Gore. Many people would have treated this incident in a heavy way. Mr. Pink puts a humorous tone on it. He also approaches the Census Bureau for permission to be deputized to do his own census of the free agents, and is politely rebuffed. But this was no mere stunt, for he had actually found precedent for his proposal in the very first census.
Undoubtly, this book will encourage scholars and sociologists to follow up with quantative studies of the "free agent next door." Those will be helpful, but I'm sure they won't be as entertaining and stimulating as this work.
Whether or not you think you want to become a free agent, I suggest that you read this book. If Mr. Pink is correct, you will probably be downsized, rightsized, or consulted into being one anyway. You might as well understand what is coming.
Sculpt your life into a beautiful expression of your values and talents!