"How do you generate word of mouth? Excellence, of course." Tom Peters
Dan Pink is a contributing editor at Fast Company magazine. His articles on technology, economic transformation, and the future have appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate and Salon, among others. A former White House speechwriter, Pink lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and their two daughters.
tompeters.com asks ...
Why is Free Agent Nation news?
DP: Because it's probably the biggest transformation in how and why people work since Americans left the farm for the factory a hundred years ago.
And what happened? Why are we there now?
DP: There's a whole set of reasons why free agency is taking hold. First, we used to have a system in this country where companies offered employees security, and employees offered companies loyalty. That bargain has come undone. Anybody who still believes it is a fool, as Tom Peters wisely keeps reminding us.
So one reason has to do with loyalty and the structure of companies and the obligations that companies feel they owe to individuals. We used to have this regime of corporate paternalism.
Paternalism in corporate America was something that was not only prominent, it was in many ways explicit. So the phone company where my grandfather worked was known as "Ma Bell." Kodak in Rochester, New York, was known as "The great yellow father." Metropolitan Life Insurance was known as "Mother Met." There was this notion that companies would operate like parents, and they would take care of their employees like they took care of children. And that came undone in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And for a lot of American workers, it was like the end of adolescence. They no longer were going to be taken care of, and they had the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying feeling of being forced to navigate their own way. So the end of economic adolescence is one reason for the beginning of free agency.
Certainly technology has been another reason. Free agency is essentially Karl Marx's revenge, because workers can now own the means of production. In the industrial economy, the tools you needed to create wealth were large, expensive, and difficult for one person to operate. But now the tools—such as a laptop—are small, affordable, and easy for one person to operate.
I have a modest home office. I've got two computers in this office—more computing power than was on Apollo 11. And the tools of the means of production are easy for one person to operate; at least my Mac is.
Also, the nature of corporations has changed. For instance, we used to expect corporations to be around forever. But that's not true anymore. Think about Netscape. Netscape, which was a success, a huge success, was founded in '94, went public in '95, then essentially disappeared in early 1999. It had a life span of just over four years. So, was Netscape a company or was Netscape just a really cool project?
And then you ask yourself, does it even matter? Because what did Netscape do? It put a good product on the market, it challenged a big company, it equipped lots of people with new skills and connections, it made some people wealthy.
But so, in a way, work is being broken down into its components, if you look at it that way. So why have a company? Well, you have a company to do this really cool thing. You want to make this competing browser with Microsoft, or whatever. So you have that, and so why not just think of companies right now as projects? Are companies over?
DP: No. But the life span of every company is shrinking. And this is happening at the same time that the life span of individuals is increasing. Basically, any individual can expect to outlive any organization for which he or she works. So let me raise a Zen-like metaphysical question: how do you have lifetime job security when you're going to outlive the organization?
Think about how much of your mortgage money you would bet on whether Amazon.com will be here in 10 years, or whether even General Motors will be here in 10 years, or any other company. In my grandfather's day if I had said to him, "Do you think the phone company, Ma Bell, will be here in 10 years?" he would have said, "Of course."
But my point of view is who gives a damn? I don't care as long as I can still get what I want and some other company's going to come along and get me whatever—some way to order books and program my refrigerator through my computer all at the same time. So are there still people who are asking that question that are worried about companies disappearing? I've never really worked for a big company. I don't understand why anyone would. And yet a lot of people did and do.
DP: What I'm saying is that in a kind of environment that we're describing here, you have more people following your path. What was once, in your case, an exotic choice now becomes more and more commonplace.
Well, that's good. That's a good thing.
DP: Don't get me wrong. I think in general free agency is a great thing. To my mind, the glass is three-quarters full.
But just to step back a moment. Under the old program, you were loyal to the firm; the firm was loyal to you. And there was a loyalty to the idea of work and what work is supposed to be. And that also seems to be changing. But what is it with loyalty? Is this an American thing? Why is it so important to us? Is it a human need to be loyal to something? Is it more American?
DP: Is loyalty a human need? That's a very interesting question. I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes. I think there is tremendous loyalty in the work force today. Yet it's a very different kind of loyalty from the Eisenhower era loyalty that you described. You know, that was what I would call vertical loyalty. It ran up and down, from the individual to the organization. And what I think is happening right now is a more horizontal loyalty.
It's loyalty to teams, it's loyalty to projects, it's loyalty to products, it's loyalty to colleagues, it's loyalty to ex-colleagues, it's loyalty to professions, it's loyalty to family. Instead of a single up or down node, you have multiple horizontal connections. And to my mind, that's actually a more robust form of loyalty.
And to get to your point about human nature, I do think that there is something in our genes or in our souls that fosters loyalty. There's no doubt that at some point in our evolution, loyalty conferred an evolutionary advantage—so our capacity for it lurks somewhere in our DNA. The underlying operating system of the free agent economy, the Windows 98 of free agency, is really nothing more than the Golden Rule; it's reciprocal altruism. "You're good to me—I'm good to you." And, you know, reciprocal altruism is an aspect of many species, including ours, and reciprocal altruism, the Golden Rule, also happens to be the cornerstone of every major world religion. So I do think there's something deeper in our need for being good to each other.
I was going to ask you about the Golden Rule, because—as you say—it's the cornerstone of free agency. And yet, it's always been there. (Laughing.) I must have been brainwashed in Bible school or somewhere along the way, but the Golden Rule has always been my operating system. What happened to people along the way that it wasn't their operating system?
DP: That's an excellent point. When your clone and my clone 200 years from now are looking back at the regime of what we consider traditional employment, full-time, year-round work in the service of a large organization, the predominant form of work in the last half of the 20th century, they're going to say, "Ooh, wait a second, that was a very strange aberration."
Yet today we think that that form of employment is the right and proper and natural form of employment, and that any deviation from it is some strange, exotic beast. When, in fact, I actually think that the regime of big government, big labor, big corporations, squashed a lot of these more fundamental human instincts like the Golden Rule.
After having interviewed all those free agents and after having written this book, how has it changed you and the way you work or the way you relate to your family, to your work?
DP: This might be a strange answer, but it's actually made me very optimistic. There's something about just traveling around the country and talking to people, and just seeing how good and decent most people are, and just how incredibly—I don't want to get patriotic here—but just how incredibly strong the country is, and how creative people are in overcoming difficulties. Being laid off and then thriving as a free agent, or fashioning all kinds of small groups to overcome the isolation that accompanies working on your own.
It's also made me think that the core attitude of most Americans and the core attitude of work is really at odds with the media elite and chattering class, who are deeply cynical, deeply disdainful, deeply distrustful of everything.
I'm optimistic because I think that the country is so strong and people are so good. Yet there's this chasm between that and the media elite. And I, of course, am not considering myself part of the media elite. (Laughs.)
Another thing which a couple of people have pointed out is the number of members of the chattering class, media elite—call it what you will—who are themselves organization men and organization women. They are employees of these giant, multi-national corporations. And they don't like to hear that the world is changing; they don't like to hear that there are people out there who are actually enjoying what they do.
I'm astonished at how much email I've gotten about my book. First of all, I'm amazed that anybody bought it. I'm doubly amazed that anybody read it. After laboring on this for so many years, the idea that someone walked into a bookstore, paid twenty-five bucks of their hard earned money and read this book—I'm so grateful for that.
I also can't believe how much email I've gotten from people saying, "This is great. This really helped me out. This really helped me see how the world is operating." Meanwhile, I got a terrible review in the New York Times that basically said, "This isn't really happening. No one's really happy working on their own."
That's fine. The media say slashing, snarky things about Tom Peters. Meanwhile, he's been right about 80 percent of things, which is double their rate, and he's much more interesting, much more engaging, and actually gives a crap about what really happens. I don't much care what the chattering class thinks, even if for a time I longed to be a member of that esteemed club.
That's right. You were there. You were behind the scenes, crafting the words for our former Vice President's speeches.
DP: I punched my ticket in a lot of these organizations. And, you know, it's interesting leaving them, always having this kind of dull discomfort with them while in there, and then leaving them and saying, "Oh my gosh! A lot of these people are absolutely full of crap." In some sense converts are the most zealous advocates of the cause. I'm sort of a convert.
So who was the coolest person you met out there on the road?
DP: The coolest person? The coolest person had to be Betty Fox, a.k.a. "Grandma Betty," who's both in the first chapter and in the epilogue. The idea of a 68-year-old, out-of-work widow in Bayside, Queens, using Web TV to become a force on the Internet is just so fabulous. I've got to give her a huge amount of credit.
The other people who I thought were really cool—kind of a group of people—were some of these new-fangled labor leaders in Free Agent Nation, people like Sarah Horowitz, the founder of a group called Working Today. She's very cool. What's interesting about her is that she gets a fair amount of scorn from traditional labor unions, even though she has incredible bona fides with those groups, with organized labor, and she's actually trying to do something really big and important. But again, you know, anybody who tries to deviate from the status quo will often garner howls of protest.
DP: That's not my term. It was coined by these two folks down in Raleigh, North Carolina.
What does it mean?
DP: It's an organization that in their words is "ruthlessly small." That's beautiful, isn't it? Ruthlessly small. It's one of those lovely phrases where you just hit yourself on the forehead and say, "Oh, I wish I'd thought of that!"
You write about creating new laws for the way people are working as free agents. And you supply numbers indicating that a large percent of the population is temp or free agent, or running a micro-business. But is this going to become the mainstream? Where are we as a culture? Are we in the middle of a shift? Is this a cyclical thing?
DP: I would say that one out of four people working as some type of free agent is pretty mainstream. I don't buy some of the prognosticators who say that by 2005, 50 percent of Americans will be self-employed. I just can't see that happening. I can see a kind of peaceful or semi-peaceful cohabitation between traditional jobs and free agency.
Traditional jobs are beginning to resemble free agent employment. Job tenure is shrinking. People go into a job saying, "I'll stick around for a year or two." The border between who's a free agent and who's a traditional employee is going to be harder to detect, and it's going to matter even less.
Also, it's not as if you have to pick a side, and then stay there forever. It's not like Cuba where you swim across to Florida and renounce your citizenship in Cuba and never go back, and then spend the rest of your days plotting against Castro.
More and more people will be holding dual passports in Free Agent Nation and in Corporate America. They'll be doing time in Corporate America, they'll be coming to Free Agent Nation, they'll be going back, and so forth.
Apparently there's a real need for flexibility when it comes to work. But when it comes to flexibility and ambiguity, authors such as Helen Fisher and Judy Rosener tell us that guys don't do well with ambiguity and women do.
DP: Exactly. Which is why we're on the brink of a feminine century. The border between what is work and what is home is blurring, becoming ambiguous. The border between what is work and what is play is blurring. It's becoming ambiguous. The borderline between what's a company and what's a project is growing muddier. The borderline between who's an employee and who's a free agent is growing murkier. Women, in general, are much better at dealing with ambiguity than men are.
Given the way this economy operates, women are going to have a comparative advantage, in that men are going to have to start acting much more like women. Now fortunately for me, I live in a house with three women, or two girls and a woman.
You're all set.
DP: I'm golden. And I'm sort of a girly-man myself, you know, because I don't play around with firearms, I don't like driving fast cars. I'm actually pretty good with ambiguity. In fact, I pride myself on being ambiguous, you know.
So who's doing the grocery shopping?
DP: Well, we both do the grocery shopping, but I am basically 100 percent in charge of online groceries.
A tech guy.
DP: Yeah, maybe it's my Y chromosome talking. When I do online shopping I can delude myself into thinking I'm doing hard-core, manly technology work, when in fact I'm just saying, "Yes, I'd like a pound-and-a-half of grapes and 14 jars of baby food."
Did you call the book Free Agent Nation just so you could get the "FAN" acronym?
DP: I called it Free Agent Nation because that's the headline we put on the Fast Company story.
So now you can have "FAN Clubs."
DP: Yeah. Well, yeah, exactly. Of course, that only took me two years to come up with. (Laughs.) I had some other really bad names for those things, and I'm totally spacing out on what I called it before. But some unbelievably stupid name. And then I finally realized I had an acronym staring me in the face.
You've created a lot of ideas for businesses. Is anybody picking up on that? Somebody's going to make a killing catering to our free-agent needs as older folks. Right?
DP: Yes. I do hope somebody starts some of these businesses, because I could use the help.
Actually, I'll give you an example. My favorite business idea now, which is one of the most fanciful, is the idea of the joint temp agency/travel agency for old Americans. These folks want to work, but only part-time. And they want to travel, but maybe not in one of those dreary tours where everybody wears name tags and carries vinyl shoulder bags. With this agency, you go to Italy—do a little work, do a little sightseeing. That one is more fanciful. I'd love to see that happen, just because I think it's cool.
But I'll give you an idea. I have this notion of the new office that will be what I call the Free Agent Elk's Lodge.
In the Adams-Morgan area of Washington, D.C., somebody has opened something called "The Affinity Lab." Essentially they're renting out desks and common areas to small entrepreneurs and free agents. It's not really an executive suite, and it's not really an incubator. I'm not sure what it is, but it's pretty cool. It's a free-agent Elk's Lodge. So here it is, off the pages of my book, into the heart of Adams-Morgan.
And there's another one like that going up on Houston Street in New York City. So I think these things will pop up. Some of these ideas might turn out to be ridiculously misguided. But, hey, they're targeting a need.
Well, I'm working at home and I've got a Starbucks nearby, but that's overridden with 25-year-olds. I want Starbucks with more room and a bar. Then it would get much more interesting, say, after 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon.
DP: Well, let me tell you, Starbucks has something like that. Now they've disguised that it's sponsored by Starbucks. But it's this outfit called Circadia.
And they have a bar?
DP: Circadia has a bar. They also have a conference room.
So Starbucks is already all over this.
DP: I've got to tell you, Starbucks is such a smart company. They did a deal with Compaq Computer and they did a deal with Microsoft to provide wireless Internet connections at huge numbers of the Starbucks facilities.
Starbucks is really in the commercial real estate business. I think that they understand that. I'm not sure anybody—including their competitors—understands that. So I do think that these things will happen, and I do think that some of these new companies and new industries will happen.
You mention that Generation X doesn't have enough warm bodies. So we of the baby-boomer generation are going to be needed to work when we ought to be retiring. I always figured I'd be working way into my old age. I enjoy working, though, and as long as I don't have to lift pianos when I'm 80, that'll be okay. But now I see that, really, I don't have any choice, because there won't be enough of the younger people to do the work.
DP: You're going to have a choice. You're actually going to have incredible bargaining power.
They're going to be calling the 70-year-olds out of the bull pen. And that's great. That's great for 70-year-olds. Baby boomers are going to have some pretty serious bargaining power in the work place. Remember, though, that we're really talking about the so-called industrial world, where you have this pretty dramatic drop-off in fertility. That's not true of the so-called developing world.
DP: So who knows? If countries like India—
That's true. All of this work goes to India. Right? It's already being all outsourced over there.
DP: Absolutely. There's a lot of knowledge work going to places like India and the Philippines. India has a billion people, you know, probably 500 million of whom speak English—a huge portion of which have a solid middle-class education. Five hundred million people is nearly double the size of the entire United States. So you might be screwed, actually.
Now I'm worried.
DP: You might have no social security. And then you're going to be competing for work with a 19-year-old person in the Philippines who's willing to work for $4.00 an hour.
Yeah. Oh well. It's all over.
Okay, I've got to figure out something. I've got to open an Elk's Lodge right away.
DP: You should do the Elk's Lodge. I think that's actually a pretty interesting thing to do.
DP: At night I like to try to do reading that is pretty unrelated to what I do with the rest of my day. There's a D.C.-based crime novelist who I think is awesome, and who I'm astonished hasn't broken through the surface yet. His name is George Pelecanos. I think he's really cool.
The other book that I've just started, what is really excellent, is a book by a guy named Robert Wright called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. It's a book that basically says that things are getting better. It's a very interesting book. He wrote a book about four years ago called The Moral Animal, which was kind of a popularization of some of the best stuff in evolutionary psychology. And that also is a terrific book.
And so what's your next project? Do you have anything particular in mind?
DP: Well, I'm still writing for Fast Company. I have a column on the Wall Street Journal's website, which is a lot of fun. I'm going to be going out to try to peddle another book pretty soon, once I see how this one does. I'm going to see how this one does to see whether I have to write my next book under a pen name.
What's that book about?
DP: Actually there are two books. I have two book ideas. But I can't talk about them yet in any detail.
But would your next book be about work? Are you going to stick with that area?
DP: Yes. One of them is about work, business, and the economy. The other one is about—it's hard to say, really, what it's about. In some ways, it's about the meaning of life.