Rath to Jerry Maguire, the Evolution of Organization Man
Dan Pink Discusses Opportunities And Entrepreneurship In
(Washington, DC -- June 20, 2001)
In the 1950s, novelist Sloan Wilson made an American icon out
of Tom Rath, “The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit,” a post-War
everyman wrestling with the challenges of maintaining authenticity
in the corporate world. Many
things have changed dramatically since then, but, as author Daniel Pink discussed at tonight’s Netpreneur Coffee &
DoughNets meeting, people (men and
women) are still struggling with those gray flannel issues today,
and it’s still reflected in pop culture. The
title character of “Jerry Maguire,” for example, responds by
trying to make it on his own, a “free agent” sports agent in a
world of “Show me the money!”
According to Pink, author of the new book “Free Agent Nation,” Maguire may be as much of an icon for our
times as Rath was for his.
For Pink, “a free agent is a person who
works untethered to a big company or large organization.” They
include the self-employed, freelancers, "e-lancers,"
independent contractors, home-based businesspeople, solo
practitioners, independent professionals and operators of
microbusinesses, as well more colorful descriptives like “lone
eagles,” “1099ers,” “techno-cowboys” and “CFOs-to-go.”
By Pink’s calculations, in the past several years their
ranks have swelled to over 33 million people in the US, more than
the number of manufacturing workers (18 million) and public sector
workers at all levels of government (20 million).
Pink, who was once a speech writer for former Vice President
Al Gore, became a free agent himself several years ago and began to
track the movement nationally after writing an article on it for Fast Company magazine.
That article has since grown into the book and a Free
Agent Nation website which Pink operates.
Why is free agency such a growing phenomenon?
There are a host of interrelated and interdependent reasons
that reflect the deep changes in the world.
They touch on everything from macroeconomic trends to
demographic upheavals to shifting value structures to technology to
the existential angst of the baby boom generation.
When Pink explains his own move to free agency, he speaks for
many. Even though his
all the outward attributes of coolness and prestige¾everything from meetings at the vice
presidential mansion to trips aboard Air Force Two to chance
encounters with Wolf Blitzer¾deep
down, the truth was that I was miserable because the job was
all-consuming. I was
grateful to have had it, but it was eating me alive.
I had no control over my time, no control over my life, and
my wife and I had a daughter who I never got to see.
I was flat out miserable, so I quit.”
was jobs in general that were getting me down,” Pink decided,
“so I figured that I'd try a little experiment.”
and women (especially women) are trying that experiment all over
America now, people whom Pink divides into three groups:
- Soloists, the over 16 million people who go by names like
“freelancer” and “independent consultant,” working alone and
migrating from project to project.
- Temps, some 3 million people at both the low-end (from manual
labor to administrative positions who are often among the most
unhappy workers) and the high-end (in professional and
semi-professional positions such as nurses, interim executives and
- Microbusinesses, which include over 13 million entrepreneurs and
very, very small businesses that may employ as few as just one
Part social scientist, part stand-up
comedian, Pink stepped through the nature, numbers and motivations
of the free agent movement using film clips, quizzes and wisecracks
that kept the audience engaged and giggling.
An irony quickly became apparent: in a world where
individuals are rapidly abandoning large organizations (and
Organization Man’s organizational contract), American social
structures are not keeping pace.
For example, among the biggest concerns of free agents are
health and disability insurance which have largely become functions
of employer benefits programs these days.
Politics, policy and that largest organization of all, the
federal government, are even further behind the times.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics currently tracks just two
kinds of employees: farm and non-farm workers.
The economic policy debate more often than not is reduced to
argument between two factions: Big Labor vs. Fortune 500 companies.
However, fewer than one in 10 Americans are members of
unions, and only about the same number work for large corporations. The vast majority of Americans
have relatively little direct connection to either, leading Pink to
comment, “You wonder about the many reasons why voter turn-out is
down and why people are disengaged from politics?”
But if free agents are turning away from
government and corporations, where are they looking for answers?
Quite often it’s in places like Starbucks, Kinko’s and
Staples, what Pink calls the “free agent infrastructure.”
Businesses which are actively and aggressively addressing the
growing market are finding huge returns.
(Staples recently announced the news that it would open only
100 new 20,000 sq. ft. stores this year.)
But the truly successful ones are those few who really grasp
the free agent’s psychology and business rules.
Take Starbucks, for example, the poster child
for servicing the free agent market according to Pink.
“What business are they in?” he asked.
Nope, not coffee drinks, they’re in real estate, he
declared, citing the vast numbers of free agents across the country
at any given hour of the day who are nestled in overstuffed arm
chairs, typing away on laptops, conducting interviews, holding sales
meetings and talking on cell phones, all for the price of a cup of
Joe. Compare that to a growing phenomenon called “executive
office clubs” where business people can rent space, technology and
services inexpensively, plus get all the Starbucks coffee they want
as part of the deal. According
to Pink, both are in the same business, they simply have different
If you need more proof, consider that
Starbucks’ two biggest corporate deals of late were not with
Safeway or Mr. Coffee; they were with Compaq and Microsoft to
provide wireless Internet connectivity in many of their stores.
And a new Starbucks venture, Circadia, open now in San
Francisco and Seattle, offers a bit fuller menu than its coffee
houses, plus multimedia rooms you can rent by the hour.
As companies like Starbucks and Kinko’s have
discovered, there are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs in
servicing free agent markets, and Pink suggested several more
possibilities ranging from new kinds of talent agencies to creative
sources for IT services. There
are other implications for entrepreneurs in the free agent nation,
as well, such as how one competes for free agent talent.
Employers large and small must come to understand the new
work ethic, priorities and values of free agency because free agents
may be just the type of free thinkers startups need most of all in
their highly competitive markets.
You can see it in a passage that Pink read from the shooting
script for Jerry Maguire, in an early scene in which Maguire is
making copies of his new “mission statement” at Kinko’s and
the clerk smiles with admiration, “Jerry
nods. This guy
sounds and looks like a prophet.
In fact, everyone in Kinko's at 3 a.m. does."
Copyright © 2002 Morino Institute. All rights reserved.