Tom McDermott got in touch with me through LinkedIn after seeing a post about my book in a business group made up of alumni from my high school, Xavier, in New York City. He and I had a discussion about what “working” means in today’s no-job-security world and he mentioned he had done a guest piece for the New York Post, there titled Land of the Free Agents, on his own odyssey from white-collar professional to freelancing entrepreneur. With his permission, I’m reprinting his story here, this is the second of three parts.
In the months and years that followed, career consultants continued to advise that people like me needed 200 great contacts, 20 or so hot prospects, and meeting after meeting with hiring managers in order to generate two or three fantastic offers. Meanwhile, I and others like me — the other displaced workers I met in networking groups — seemed to be living on another planet. No matter how hard we applied ourselves, few of us generated real offers. Many could not generate any response at all from their inquiries.
I began to feel like all of us were caught up in a tectonic shift in the American economy and culture, running even deeper than the recession. The old world of jobs — by which I mean full-time employment at a growing enterprise run by reasonably honest people, where we work alongside others and receive a regular paycheck and benefits including health insurance — seems to be disappearing for many of us.
Instead, we’re living in a DIY world where everybody is building a Web site, branding themselves, looking inward for an identity or a service or a product to sell, rather than outward for a “job” to perform. Some 42 million Americans are now independent workers of some sort, according to the ever-growing Freelancers Union, whose president, Sara Horowitz, has called this shift toward free agents — many of whom work a hodgepodge of jobs across different sectors — the biggest change in the workforce since the Industrial Revolution.
In other words, a lot of people like me have begun to fundamentally change the way we think of a “job.”
One morning, tired of the traditional approach and with nothing left to lose, I put on a suit, commuted down the hall to my home office-studio and hired myself.
It wasn’t so much that I “formed a company with me as CEO,” as much as I stopped thinking of myself as “unemployed” or, even worse in my book, “retired.”
I began reviving a long-dormant writing career, turning out short essays and creating a couple of blogs that built a small audience. I bid on a corporate travel management project and won it, thinking I might start a small consultancy. I joined the Gerson Lehrman Group, a kind of multipurpose consulting guild, which offered occasional pay-by-the-hour opportunities.
Neither attempt was a booming success, but at least I wasn’t waiting around for recruiters to never call or write. I was working my outbox, not hoping for a miracle to arrive in my inbox.
My consulting venture never quite gelled, but one of my blogs was picked up by recessionwire.com and then MSNMoney.com. Another blog landed me a paid freelance assignment. Then I began writing a column for a local paper, later adding police reporting to my portfolio.
One day, a friend asked if I’d be interested in selling a parking meter management system to local municipalities. I said yes, of course, and began learning about the technology, making cold calls at city halls and writing field reports about the best prospects. Talk about change!
I haven’t yet found that elusive j-o-b — in a roomful of colleagues, where I return each day, and from which I derive regular pay and benefits, not to mention a sense of structure and community. A good part of me believes that I could still make that happen, that it is not some quixotic dream beyond my control.
But in the meantime, my new work life — as a dedicated job-searcher, freelancer, project worker and novice entrepreneur — seems to be becoming the new norm.
In his recent bestselling book, “The Start-Up of You,” Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn fame and fortune, argued that we all need to adapt to the new paradigm. “Every individual needs to think of themselves as the entrepreneur of their own life,” he told the Wall Street Journal recently. “You don’t do that, you are at serious risk.”
It sounds so simple, so true, so now. And, who would argue with a serially successful entrepreneur?
But can it really be so simple? Can employees used to “a job with a hierarchy, like a career ladder or escalator,” as Hoffman put it, transform and rebrand themselves overnight? Will people buy what they are selling? Is it realistic to think that we can all become successful entrepreneurs? And as a nation of free agents, how will we get mortgages and leases, afford the frightening cost of health insurance and college?
Is this any way to run a culture and build an economy toward the next millennium, or even the next decade?
I’m beginning to think that we will soon have new ways to organize work that will go well beyond current social networking sites. Whatever one thinks about large companies and corporations, they have been pretty efficient organizers of work for a long time. I think that we will need more than the Internet, a super-smart phone, and a short-term opportunist’s desire to become a billionaire to replace them.
Are we going to be selling our respective skills and experience in some sort of online “work fair” or consultancy? Are we going to line up each morning along the digital highway like the day laborers along Interstate 95? Or, is this just a nasty trough we’ve fallen into and will we all rise together with the next big wave of expansion?
There must be a better way and we’d better start talking about that right now. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for an energetic, creative communicator, manager or other hired hand — one who’s adaptable and willing to learn — I’m ready. You can find me on LinkedIn.