Four Shifts that Mark a Generation of Free Agents


Along with a new generation of college grads entering the marketplace, there is a new mindset: the "free agent." Are you ready for the change?

Back in 1969, Curt Flood, centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, ushered in “free agency” for professional ballplayers. Up until that year, players were bound to a team for life by the so-called “reserve clause”. Simply put, a player was a team’s property. But thanks to Curt Flood’s lawsuit, players were considered talent for hire from that point on. Both the team and the individual player had a say in what happened.

It was a new day.

And so it is with us today. Along with a new generation of college grads entering the marketplace, there is a new mindset—one they not only carry, but spread. It’s a “free agent” mindset that values free time, independence, creativity and self-actualization over standard predictability and security. If you peered into their brains, you’d see a freelancer. An independent contractor. A project-based worker. Think Uber. Think On-Demand movies.

In my early career, we used to need firms—centralized, collective entities—because of the transaction costs of trying to get business, pay benefits, provide back office support, or purchase supplies and workspaces themselves. Today, however, the formula is reversed. We don’t need firms as much as platforms because the costs of renting office space for a centralized headquarters, standard procedures and policies, and employing full-time workers with benefits are just too high. It is far cheaper just to connect customers and providers, and today… we can.

According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New American Foundation, however, we’re already seeing a new world of goods and services, including cooking, handyman services, laundry, shopping, scheduling, personal training, coding, doctoring, lawyering, bossing, and creating everything from television ads to Ebola suits. She refers to them as the “on-demand economy” or the “platform economy.” She writes in the Huffington Post:

We’re headed towards a dramatically different economy in which most workers will be independent contractors. Freelancers will work on demand for whoever needs their services rather than for fixed periods of time for a single employer.

The Economist also took a stab at describing this new workplace mindset, saying, “Workers will be on a platform that matches them with customers and provides verification, security and payment systems.” Here’s a snapshot of the shift:

Old School:

  1. I work for a company
  2. I work from 9 to 5
  3. It’s all about serving the “firm”
  4. I am loyal to my industry brand
  5. I value security and steady paychecks

New School:

  1. I work for myself
  2. I work sporadic hours
  3. It’s all about building my platform
  4. I’m opportunistic and often change
  5. I value personal time and freedom

How Do We Respond Well to This New Day?

So are you ready for this new day? Can you even imagine it at your present job? Some companies will be early adaptors, while others will be late, but I believe this new day is coming for most of us. So—how do we make a mental shift? What will be the central shifts that mark this new “free agent” economy?

  1. Mobility with your tasks.

You’re probably already seeing this: new team members want to choose what they do. While the need to generate revenue often determines why we take whatever comes our way, this new day offers the ability to be mobile, to pick and choose your focus, and to do it on the run. The stationary office is replaced by the mobile, virtual workstation. This will be scary for some—but for leaders who see the benefits, it can be an adventure.

  1. Flexibility with your time.

This new day enables you to both have a job and do the things you care most about. Why? Because you can take in that little league practice at 4:00pm when you’re able to work again at 9:00pm. You can be both a contributor and consumer at various times during the day. In fact, I’ve found that Millennials’ best work is often done at midnight, not noon. As Anne-Marie mentions: “A dramatic shift brought by the on-demand economy is that Millennials’ definition of quality of life now involves more time and less stuff.”

  1. Opportunity with your team.

Team members value being nimble and changing directions at a moment’s notice. They love seizing opportunities, which gives an organization the ability to try out a new product or service. If it doesn’t work, scrap it or tweak it. No “free agent” who’s entering the workforce is looking to make widgets in a factory for life. They care about fishing in “blue oceans” with new ideas designed for virgin territory.

  1. Adaptability with your terms.

Instead of valuing the security that a steady system offers, what if we valued the ability to stop and start when we want to—or even have to—based on needs in our personal lives? Needs such as having to take care of an aging parent or a young child, or furthering one’s education in order to pay a mortgage? We’ll need to shift what we cling to and seize the volatility of this new day. With the Millennials, we will want a blend that values both money and meaning.

Are you ready for this?

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