Until a half-century ago, entrepreneurship (the solo or hero variety), was taboo. The nerve of folks who made their living from customers and friends for that matter! Entrepreneurs, so it went, could not cut it inside the organisation -- poor souls had to strike out on their own. Today this way of life is a bragging right.

Lifetime loyalty to a single company has long gone the way of the dodo bird. Our economy's fundamental unit is not the organization -- it's you. You can follow your nose, try out different things, and see where it takes you. But what does this mean for the future of work? Two decades since chronicling free agent nation, I caught up with author Daniel Pink to get some answers.

Get a Leg Up

At the turn of the century, Pink found free agents in every nook and cranny -- even tracking down Betty Fox, an early yet elderly (sixty-eight-years-old) internet entrepreneur. Using her knowledge, the web, and a bit of help from her son, she launched and sold an online business for seniors.

Like Betty, for those with a knack of leveraging technology, free agency can provide a one-way ticket to liberation. But for others, free agents or otherwise -- work is still just a way to make ends meet. The net outcome of technological advances might mean an elite few are catapulted ahead while the rest are left waving in the rearview mirror. Not seeing the explosiveness of the change that would take place, Pink remarks:

"Remember: I wrote Free Agent Nation before smartphones and, equally more important, before widespread broadband! But that's not all. It was also before Facebook, before Twitter, before the cloud, and before Uber, TaskRabbit, and the gig economy. In a way, the conditions I described back then now almost seem quaint. I'm hoping that this country will reckon with its ugliest truth: That the modern economy is leaving people behind. What's happening has less to do with the form of work...and much more to do with who has skills that are in demand and who doesn't. The fact that too many people who work hard and do the right thing can't get ahead is the most urgent moral and economic issue we face."

At its core, technology is simply about the way we make progress. The challenge then is in designing a better system of work that helps employees develop in-demand skills on the fly. As machines will soon eclipse the amount of work we do, more contractors and flexible working arrangements will play a significant role in the system. But so too will the ability to play nicely with our robot pals. If we rise to the challenge, it could be our greatest opportunity to flourish.

Beef Brisket Hash

Our organizations are failing us because they're not built to function as engines for learning. Employees should get paid for both their intellectual property and what it is they'll need to know. But what we still have are corporations that reward conformity over professional growth.

While the incoming workforce is being prepped for jobs that will soon be extinct, what they desperately require is the ability to learn how to learn. Our education system is rooted in standardization and mass synchronization but will only sprout through personal, situational, and reflective practice. Pink points out the biggest surprise in the learning revolution:

"The best example here...is YouTube. It has become the go-to source for all kinds of specialized learning -- from playing chord progressions on a guitar to perfecting an Australian accent to preparing beef brisket hash to having a difficult workplace conversation...the key for organizations is to make it just as easy and effective to learn new skills inside the organization as it is to do so outside the organization.""

As a young person, you're not allowed to sit out the future. You must cultivate a growth mindset. And those organizations that liberate workers so they can follow their nose are simply practicing good business. To thrive in the future, workers must be given the leeway for cross-domain thinking and creative problem-solving. Cultivating curiosity isn't just trendy-- it 's winning in the innovation game.

Work it Out

We need to redesign both our schools and organizations so that they continually nourish our minds. It's our best hope if want to race with the machines, and not against them. Students and workers alike need spaces that consistently feed curiosity and free them to stoke creativity. And while the future may not be evenly distributed -- it can be a better place.

A long road lies ahead. You might hold your breath, interminably waiting for your company to treat you as a free agent. But since Pink let the cat out of the bag a tsunami of workers have jumped ship. They glee over the fact that going your own way is the only way.

I'm Jonas. I write and talk about work. Join thousands and get my monthly digest here

Published on: Oct 23, 2018
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