The Unfortunate Reality of a Free Agent Nation
During the dot-com boom, the free-agent lifestyle was widely described and appeared to offer tremendous allure. What was really happening was that we were in an era of real and perceived labor shortages, companies were willing to pay for temporary workers who happily (and easily) moved from project to project at perpetually understaffed companies.
The end of the dot-com boom dramatically demonstrated the shortcomings of the idea of a large free-agent class. Suddenly, there was no work for this talented group of individuals. As the job market deteriorated, temporary employees were the first to be cut from payrolls. Free agents, who made a living working for others—with no loyalty to any specific company and none expected in return—had their livelihood viciously ripped away. Free agents are subject to the vicissitudes of the employment market and inevitably experience a boom-and-bust cycle. This is hardly the fantasy of anyone with ongoing financial responsibilities. And it certainly does not suggest a class of people who are likely to have a happy feeling of control over their lives.
The emergence of a free-agent class of workers may unfortunately say more about the limited availability of permanent job opportunities than it does about the desire of free agents to live an independent life. As one veteran magazine editor said, “I have never met a freelancer who would not happily take a full-time job.” In a March 2004 cover story Fast Company magazine expressed an even more negative sentiment, “There is most emphatically a Free Agent Nation today. The thing is, not all of the 9.3 million self-employed asked for citizenship: Downsizing turned many of them into refugees . . . struggling to pay the rent or offering to do the same work for companies they left— for less money and fewer benefits.”