Work Impacts Much More than the Economy

What changed in your work?


“Truth be told, this move from the White House to the Pink House was something I'd been contemplating for a long time,” wrote Dan Pink. What Dan said, about missing making a difference was starting to percolate for many. 

There have always been people

to strike out on their own.

But twenty years ago, the why and how of this phenomenon became noticeable. A cover article he wrote in Fast Company about “free agents” attracted tons of attention: it was legitimizing a new way to work.

Two years before the book's publication, I had started a form of social network to connect people and ideas. It was 1999. I had a corporate job. But wanted to compare notes with colleagues in other functions who were curious about innovation and learning other ways of working.

After Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers are Transforming the Way we Live launched, I hosted Dan in Philadelphia. Partnering with an independent bookshop kept the even with the theme. A room full of independent thinkers and doers showed up. 

Today we have startups, freelancers, gig workers, side hustlers, collectives, creators, and more. The idea evolved, even as the infrastructure is still catching up.


Searching for new ways of working

To write the book, Dan and members of the Pink House conducted the first official census of free agents. They discovered that tens of millions of Americans had become independent. Reasons varied from dysfunctional workplaces and bad bosses to the false promise of instant riches.

This was happening under the media and political radar. Because talking about this emergent phenomenon would have meant challenging the status quo. Yet, talking about it helped many understand where the economy was going. Twenty years on it's still going.

At the time, mainstream narrative was about “organization man.” Since 1956, William H. Whyte's nonfiction The Organization Man had been describing the trade-off of full time employees. Self-denial and submission in exchange for a regular paycheck and benefits.

This ethic of work had infiltrated companies, universities, and labs. Postwar was a period of great economic expansion. Work worked for everyone. People retired from one job with livable pensions. But companies have since broken this “catechism of work.”

Much has changed since the loyalty and security of the social contract in 1956. And even since 2001. Solo workers and independents have organized. Technology provided better tools. Independents hedged risk by differentiating their income streams.

Despite challenges like health insurance, retirement, policy, and regulatory monopolies, people are still quitting full time jobs. Talented pros who could command generous packages are still taking the plunge. Because work was never just a way to make a living.

I turn to another Whyte to appreciate how. In Consolations:The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, poet David Whyte says:

To reduce work in out societal imagination merely to competition, and the act of beating the competition, is to condemn our societies, our communities and our individual lives to imaginative poverty of the very worst kind.

In the real world it is also an isolation approach that closes off the possibilities of cooperation and conversation across both scientific boundaries and artful borders.

In the mystery of real contact and real creativity, as in the lover's embrace, there is no abstract other and no competition. With the right work, the right relationship to that work and the mystery of what is continually being revealed to us through our endeavors, we find a home in the world that eventually does not need debilitating stress, does not need our exhausted will and does not need enormous amounts of outside energy constantly fed in to sustain it.

Doing the work unlocks potential. The alternative is not just failure. It's failure to make a difference. And this is the ultimate human yearning.


What kind of world do we want to create?

“We are not as endlessly manipulable and predictable as you would think,” says Dan Pink in Drive. Based on this body of research, Pink found that money is a motivator with a twist―the best use of monetary incentive is to pay people enough and take the money issue off the table.

Companies' profit motive is a double-edged sword―when the bottom line is the only focus, that message comes across in all behaviors. But self-direction, learning to master something meaningful, and aspiring to something greater power the engine that drives people.

Perhaps this is one reason why the average worker today switches jobs every 4.4 years. 1,143 free agents participated in Dan's online census. The Department of Labor has since stated collecting and reporting the numbers with the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The independent workforce grew from 16.1 million in 2011 to 17.7 million in 2013, and 41.1 million in 2019. In 2020, independents formed 48 percent of the total workforce. 67 percent of us (every demographic) are doing it by choice. 56 percent feel more secure. 28 percent provide services beyond national borders.

More independents are also teaming with others to collaborate on projects. And more people are thinking about going solo. In fact, independent workers could grow two and a half times the overall employment rate of growth. 

Autonomy and mastery for workers

translate into flexibility and agility for companies.

While changes in behaviors and habits impact commerce, technology changes impact capabilities. Regardless of employment status, everyone is called to be a lifetime learner. That I am in spades. Collaborating with others and co-creation help with accelerated, on-demand learning.

We need both if we are in the design of a better world business.


Creating lasting impact

When businesses talk about lasting impact, the general sense tends to be 'dominance'. Forgetting that impact involves accountability. And that lasting involves evolution. Independents are intimately familiar with both.

Work is “where the self meets the world,” says David Whyte. It's a trade of human energy for the chance to be seen and felt, to give something to another. Creating is to be alive to possibility. Emerging co-creation is a framework that unlocks human intelligence for collaboration.

We can make how we work beautiful and tap into the creative mind. We can take the extra moment to be in less of a hurry to declare what we know and what needs to come next. Value comes in many guises. There's still value in building a company.

Like work, leadership also takes many different forms. As it was the case with free agents, the mainstream narrative has still not caught up with reality. Jim Collins contributed with his Level 5 leaders work.

But it was an orchestra conductor who put the maestro touch: your job as leader is to awaken possibility in others. The truth is that increasingly, people are doing just that. And it's impacting more than the current $1.21 trillion of GDP.

By creating a system that shares social energy, work is transforming lives. One story at the time.


[Data sources]

2020 MBO Partners State of Independence in America

The lifetime learner A journey through the future of postsecondary education



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