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The rise and rise of the free agent

pp_default1 Free agents, those people in the workplace who know their value, are coming to the fore in the labour market say FTdynamo in the sixth of a series of columns written for HR Zone from the new management education portal.

We are living through the most profound changes in the economy since the Industrial Revolution. Technology, globalisation, and the accelerating pace of change have yielded chaotic markets, fierce competition, and unpredictable staffing requirements.

Starting in the late 1980s, business leaders and managers began responding to these factors by seeking much greater organisational flexibility. Reengineering increased speed and efficiency with improved systems and technology. Companies in every industry have redesigned almost everything about the way work gets done. Work systems, which in some cases had been in place for decades, have been dismantled and refashioned to improve flexibility, efficiency, and effectiveness.

All of these changes in the economy have begun to free work from the rigid confines of the old-fashioned “job”: employees going every day to the same organisation in the same building during the same hours to do the same tasks in the same position in the same chain of command, paying their dues and climbing the ladder.

Now the rule of thumb is that you get the work done, whenever you can, wherever you can, however you can, whatever the work may be on any given day.

As a result, business organisations have become more nimble than before and are now much better able to compete in today’s high-tech, fast-paced, knowledge-driven economy.

But in the process the nature of work has been fundamentally reshaped and the relationship between employers and employees altered forever. In the new economy, the old-fashioned model of work is transformed.

Business leaders killed the old model of success – the dues-paying career path defined by long-term employment in one company and corporate loyalty – because the new economy called for a new relationship between employers and employees.

However, very few of those leaders predicted that, in response, the workers with the most marketable skills, the people consistently in greatest demand, would discover that they could do better fending for themselves than they ever had by following the old-fashioned career path. But that’s exactly what happened – and a new career structure is emerging.

People, especially the best educated and most skilled, increasingly see themselves as sole proprietors of their skills and abilities – as “free agents”. These free agents think of their employers as “clients”, often juggling several at once. They seem to move seamlessly from one new opportunity to the next – soaking up training resources, building relationships with decision makers, and collecting proof of their ability to add value – and cash out their career investments on a regular basis so they can reassess and renegotiate. To the free agent, success is not defined by where they stand in relation to the hierarchy of a particular organization. What matters is their ability to add value and to sell that value on the open market. Every untapped resource is waiting to be mined. Every unmet need is an opportunity to add value. Every person is a potential customer.

Today, free agency is sweeping across the workforce like wildfire. More and more people are coming to realize that to keep doing what they know how to do well and earn money doing it, they don’t necessarily need a permanent job – or even a job as such at all. In the new economy, the individual, not the employer, is in the driver’s seat. The skills that make you valuable to an employer belong to you and nobody else. When you leave your employer, those skills and experience and ability to add value go with you. Nowadays, security comes not from stability and commitments but rather from mobility and options.

All of a sudden, fewer and fewer skilled people are clinging to their jobs and crying “don’t downsize me”. And the balance of power in the labour market has shifted.

FTdynamo features writing and research from leading business schools and management consultancies with expert insight and analysis from FTdynamo. A free trial of its services is available at

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