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Free Agency

David Alan Grier
Erin Dian Dumbacher

Pages: pp. 104

Abstract—Work for an organization or yourself? Young workers today know they're on their own.

They say entry-level jobs are for experimenting. But do organizations permit experimentation?

//EDD// After a long day at the office, I sought inspiration. I switched between a friend-recommended video feed of a recently organized conference in Baghdad and a book that David suggested (mandated, really) I read. Daniel Pink's Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself is the textbook for all Generation Y managers, he said.

Indeed, comments on the cover gloat that it's "the best book on work since The Organization Man," which William Whyte wrote in the 1950s to describe the post-war American worker. Then, an employee (likely a man) put aside his rugged individualism to work at the feet of a large, corporate employer. The employer compensated for the worker's loyalty with a healthy retirement package and affordable healthcare benefits. Sound familiar?

The "organization" life was no longer desirable after the 1990s, according to Pink, who believes that a free agent who operates on his or her own terms will dominate the 21st century. David gets a gold star for the recommendation because Pink is right—but independent careers are such an apparent reality for young workers today that there's no need for me to recommend Free Agent Nation to friends. We already know we're on our own.

//DAG// Just recently, I was helping Michael, a new graduate, prepare for an "organization man" type of career. Unlike most of his peers, he had job offers from two very different kinds of organizations. As I watched him decide between the two, I realized that Michael had limited experience in working with large, complex entities. Had he been living in the 1950s, the age of William Whyte, he would have spent most of his life in structured organizations: Boy Scouts, church groups, school structures, and even a rigid university curriculum that offered him few electives.

Instead of living within structure, he is part of the texting and Twitter generation that socializes in spontaneously organized flash mobs, spends its days in short-term volunteer activity, and studies for a major so loosely defined that two graduates seldom have taken three courses in common.

As Michael weighed the benefits and drawbacks of each job offer, I could see that not only was he afraid that he was going to make the wrong choice but also that either choice was going to lead him into a rigid group that would limit his creativity. As he described each position, he was more concerned about what the jobs would prevent him from doing than what they would allow him to accomplish.

Eventually, Michael made a choice and, judging from our most recent conversation, seems to be happy with the result. Still, I have the feeling that his career has taken him backward in time and placed him on a track that is organized more like the jobs that my father's generation held than the positions that Daniel Pink sees in contemporary society.

//EDD// In another economic climate, young people entering the workforce today might find themselves consumed in a crisis of opportunity. On the surface, all options seem available. But today fewer organizations offer stable job opportunities. Meanwhile, engineers and MBAs are considering life with a start-up or an otherwise cutting-edge firm. The ideal job is both hard to find and hard to get.

We take book recom-mendations and listen to our elders, but then we continue to search—we read books, we click "connect," we send one more e-mail. When we are in need of inspiration, we continue browsing.

About the Authors

David Alan Grier is an IEEE Fellow and author of the forthcoming book The Company We Keep. Contact him at or on Twitter @dagrier.
Erin Dian Dumbacher is associate director of research at the Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media. Contact her at or on Twitter @erin_dian.
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