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Warning: This book may make you rethink your career

Review: Birth of a 'nation'

Warning: This book may make you rethink your career

"Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live"
By Daniel H. Pink
Warner Books, 356 pages, May


(CNN) -- This book is about the free agent. If the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I am talking about. They are free from the bonds of a large institution, and agents of their own futures. They are the new archetypes of work in America. Today, in the shadow of another economic boom, America's new economic emblem is the footloose, independent worker -- the tech-savvy, self-reliant, path-charting micropreneur.

And how good it is to find such a concise description of what Daniel H. Pink is on about, so near the beginning of his new book, "Free Agent Nation."

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graphic If you're currently a full-timer, have you considered free agency?

Every hour on the hour.
Sort of, but not seriously.
Nah, I'm a born "organization person."
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Pink, a contributing editor at Fast Company magazine and a confirmed and successful free-lancer, himself, has put together a kind of manifesto for what he terms the "dis-Organization Man" (and Woman) -- a careerist who flees the traditional constraints placed on a "company man," as the loyal everyworker was called in the 1950s.

"Power is devolving," writes Pink, "from the organization to the individual. The individual, not the organization, has become the economy's fundamental unit. Put more simply, we're all going Hollywood." And by that phrase, Pink means to draw a parallel between the free agency he's writing about and the post-big-studio-and-star-system Tinsel Town that today gathers artists to make a single film, then disbands them once the project is done.

Pink's work -- prefaced by his funny telling of coming out of White House speech-writing and into free agency -- is compelling and thoughtful. It's tinged, though, with an exuberance that borders on the irrational when you remember your own free-lance days of struggling for assignments and taking no vacations for fear of starving.

At a time when the collective working mind, in fact, clearly is debating whether to shop at "the company store" or try branching out, Pink has done the yearlong-American-road-trip approach to his subject. The result is anecdotal like Kuralt or Steinbeck, but presented in the current vogue with a chapter-closing "The Box" summary that reminds you of the "Complete Idiot's Guide" series layout.

Each box, for example, includes "The Crux," "The Factoid," "The Quote" and "The Word" -- clues you can use, USA Today reader, to get your info fast and in those tiny bits and pieces so many media now substitute for good writing.

"In the free agent future, careers will be as diverse as free agents themselves. For instance, some young people might use a stint in W-2 employment as a form of graduate education -- to prepare themselves for the world of free agency. "
— Daniel H. Pink, "Free Agent Nation"

The saving grace is that Pink is a good writer, quite a good one. So when not boxed into easy-access formats, he can get off some entertaining prose. Consider this description of what he calls a "F.A.N. club" -- as in a "Free Agent Nation club" of like-minded self-employeds.

On a blazingly sunny August afternoon, amid the soaring crimson rocks of northern New Mexico, the Ghost Ranch Alliance has convened. At the entrance to an adobe building, a hand-lettered sign on butcher-block paper reads, HELLO AND WELCOME TO GLOBAL SHARING RETREAT II. Inside, 24 cross-cultural trainers and consultants -- most of them independent workers, all of them independent spirits -- sit in a circle for the first session of this three-day event. About 50 people, representing 15 nationalities and toting six kids, have come here.

Facts and figures

What bumps Pink's fine prose over the non-fiction line from banality into bona fide presence on the career-book shelf is his journalism. The guy knows to tell us just how well grounded he is, even as he gets off one sweeping observation after the next.

Daniel H. Pink
Daniel H. Pink  

So when he hurls down a line like "Free agency is the real new economy," he already has noted for you that fewer than one in 10 Americans now works for a Fortune 500 company. And the largest private employer in the country is Manpower Inc., the temporary-worker giant that fields more than 1,100 satellite offices.

Pink is properly footnoted and indexed so you always know where he's coming from on something like this: "A 1999 Lou Harris survey of 1,000 self-employed Americans and small entrepreneurs found that money was not their top motivator. Nine out of 10 respondents said that 'setting their own priorities and independence influenced their decision most' to go out on their own."

And in making his own move "from the White House to the Pink house," as he puts it, Pink has retained his touch with what a good career book offers -- instruction. What could have become "Those Quirky Self-Employed Bozos" in his hand has shape and substance, not least because he has configured this read with a lot of practical structure.

There's a chapter, for example, on "The Free Agent Org Chart and Operating System," one on "Free Agency and the Future of Offices, Homes and Real Estate" and -- venture capital fans, pay attention -- "Putting the 'I' in IPO: The Path Toward Free Agent Finance."

As for his social analysis and the impact Pink sees free agency having on the United States' workplace, he notes that some 25 million Americans now are self-employed and looks to contemporary prosperity, ease of production and the "shrinking half-lives," as he puts it, of organizations as contributing factors to the rise of this free agent nation he's spent a year touring.

Careerist readers may enjoy one of Pink's final passages on the subject of the future of careers in this new work order.

"Most managers are toast. Think about what the traditional manager does: He conducts surveillance on employees, and filters information from one layer of the organization to the other. Both tasks are obsolete."
— Daniel H. Pink, "Free Agent Nation"

Careers once were rather uniform: education, followed by work, followed by retirement. But in the free agent future, careers will be as diverse as free agents themselves. For instance, some young people might use a stint in W-2 employment as a form of graduate education -- to prepare themselves for the world of free agency. Other free agents might return to a traditional job for a few years to pick up new skills. They'd essentially get paid to learn -- and then deploy these fresh skills and new connections in their own operation.

And at the very least, if you're not pleased with your current supervision, Pink holds out some hope to you.

Most managers are toast. Think about what the traditional manager does: He conducts surveillance on employees, and filters information from one layer of the organization to the other. Both tasks are obsolete. Surveillance is useless when people are often off-site and working in teams. What's more, having a boss-appointed overseer is offensive to genuine free agents and free-agent-minded employees, who prize freedom and autonomy.

(Warner Books is a sister AOL Time Warner company with CNN.com. )

[watercooler]



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