How to Create a Career in the New Economy

Author Dan Pink on how free agent nation has changed since he wrote his bestselling book ten years ago.

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When Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation first came out in 2001, it described a new world of work that revolved around projects and people instead of corporations and 9-to-5 office life. In the decade that followed, many of Pink’s predictions came true, and free agent nation gained popular leaders and bloggers who urge people to follow their entrepreneurial dreams. Meanwhile, the recession forced some people into free agency following lay-offs.

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US News recently spoke with Pink about the current state of free agent nation, how young people can get ahead in the new economy, and his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Excerpts:

How has free agency changed since you first wrote Free Agent Nation?

The underlying forces have intensified. One of the forces back then was technology, which allowed people to have the means of production that it once took companies to have. And that was before Twitter. Before iPhones. Before Facebook. It was before widespread broadband. Technology has intensified and made it easier. And the latest financial downturn has made it absolutely clear that the old bargain between employers and employees is done. Employers do not give employees security today. The economic forces that were propelling people into free agency have accelerated, deepened, and intensified in ways that I myself didn’t even imagine.

Has free agency really become as widespread as some studies quoted in your book were predicting?

What’s happening is something even a little bit weirder. The border between corporate America and free agent nation has gotten murkier. The mobility between the two places is far greater than it was. You see people working a traditional job, then going out on their own, then going back. It used to be that you had to pick a side. Now, the border is much more porous. That is something I did not write about or envision at all.

Corporate America also resembles free agent more closely than I would have imagined ten years ago. Individuals [working in the corporate world] are forced to bear much better risk. It’s almost all defined contribution pensions and if you look at health care, the amount people contribute has grown. You’re in charge of it. So a lot of the risk has shifted to the individual, whether you’re a W-2 employee or running your own business.

What impact has the recession had on free agency? Are people more risk-averse and fearful of taking the leap to self-employment?

I think so. It’s a mix. In recessions, people get pushed into free agency, and in good times, people jump. There’s much fear in the labor market. People are concerned about leaving a job whether it’s to take a new job or to be a free agent. The fear has slowed things down throughout the economy.

Many bloggers today urge people to pursue entrepreneurial lives. Do you worry at all that some people will quit their day jobs and not be able to support themselves?

Maybe. If you’re basing your decisions on what one blogger says, then shame on you. I find most people are fairly sophisticated about how they assess the risk, and if anything, most people are very risk averse. They don’t take the plunge because they think it’s too risky.

There’s a related debate surrounding whether people should pay to go to college or pursue self-education. Do you think college degrees are a worthwhile investment?

One can make a theoretical case against going to college. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates did not go. If you are an upper-middle class kid with a good K through 12 education and have something of a security net based on your socio-economic status, I think maybe you don’t need to go to college.'

But here’s the thing. My wife and I are both college grads. I think my kids should go to college. If they said, “I don’t want to go,” I’d say, “What do you have in mind,” and if they had a clear plan, like, “I want to be a chef,” I’d say, “Cool, that’s fine,” but in general, I would encourage my kids to go to college. So I would never encourage someone else’s kids not to. If you’re not in the 80th percentile and above for socio-economic status, it’s inexorably helpful. The data are very clear on that. For a certain strata of the population, the decision to pursue other things might be okay, but for most people, it’s better to go to college. It’s not as cool, but I think you’re better off.

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What’s your advice for a new college graduate? Should they skip corporate America for free agency?

Corporate America versus becoming a free agent is a second order issue. The real issue is figuring out what you’re good at, and what will people pay you to do, and hoping there’s an overlap between those two categories. If there is, I don’t think it necessarily matters whether you go to corporate America or free agent nation. But a lot of people don’t have a good sense of what they’re good at or what the market will pay them to do. So in some cases, it’s a very good bet to go to a company and spend two years on the corporate dime seeing how offices work and what work is about. It’s a two-year invisible MBA with a salary.

What should you do if you can’t find a job? Should you create your own by becoming a free agent?

I think that’s cool, if you have a particular set of skills that are in demand and a vision for what you want to do and how you want to do it. The folks who are like that are in the distinct minority.

What makes people feel happy and fulfilled in their careers?

You want to choose something that plays to your strengths, and you want to do something where you’ll learn and grow and make progress, and make some modest contribution to the world. I don’t mean ending poverty, I mean, if you didn’t show up at work, someone would care.

Looking forward another ten years, how do you think the world of work will change?

There are a few things you can bet on strongly. One of them, and it’s been unremarked on, is that we have more women than men in the workplace. That is one of the hugest demographic changes in the country and it’s gotten almost no attention. Women are going to play a much more prominent role, inside companies and in labor markets in general. There are more women than men in college now. That will have a huge impact.

Then there’s also the aging of the workforce. You have a huge cohort of baby boomers. I’m not sure they’re going to retire right away, partly for financial reasons and partly for psychological reasons. That could create new kinds of career and generational skirmishes. The boomers never leave, so gen y-ers and gen x-ers can never move up.

And one thing that’s become clear is the greater and greater return on high-level skills. Even skills beyond the SAT skills. Right brain skills such as empathy, creativity—things that are hard to automate and outsource. The returns to those kinds of skills are growing.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer