In a recent podcast (Collectives Are Not Entities), I mentioned that a big reason why people still choose to work in companies is that they provide security. The company looks after them, so to speak. The employer and the employee form a deal in response to the company’s provision of security, workers reciprocate with their loyalty to the company. Security comes in a variety of forms; in particular, companies provide a steady income, opportunities for promotion, and a permanent job contract that makes it difficult for an employer to fire you. Furthermore, companies may provide a range of further benefits from health insurance to stock options.
Many people seem to have the impression that if you don’t show some loyalty to some collective, to some organisation, you are just ‘selfishly’ living for yourself. A free agent, someone who works independently of any organisational structure, is seen as not capable of showing true loyalty. But this is not true. People who are free agents still show loyalty, but they show loyalty to people, not organisations. Unfortunately, many of us have fallen into the trap of showing greater loyalty to our organisations rather than to those people that are living within our very own households.
People often speak of a ‘work-life balance’, and this generally means that they are trying to juggle going to a job, with picking up the kids from school or daycare, being involved in the community in some way, while still pursuing their hobbies and interests. But as is evident in society, this is not working out for a lot of people. Families are coming apart at the seams, and we are becoming further frustrated with our lives. Daniel Pink in the book, ‘Free Agent Nation’, described his situation before becoming a free agent in the following way;
“The reason we don’t balance is simple; we tried it and failed miserably. For more than a year, my wife and I had two real jobs and one real child. Each day we’d leave our house in the morning, deposit our daughter at daycare, scramble to our respective downtown offices and then reverse the process eight or nine hours later. We had what I call a commuter marriage. My wife and I lived in the same house, in the same city but our entire life seemed to revolve around getting to and from work and daycare and back again. The mornings were a mad dash to feed, cleanse, and ferry ourselves twenty-five minutes into downtown Washington. The early evenings were a mad dash to retrieve our daughter before the daycare centre locked her inside and then return the three of us to the house where we ‘lived’, though I use the term loosely. And the late evenings were the time to prepare for the next day’s wagon train. Ours was a life built around organising and maintaining a life, not living a life. We tried balancing work and family, and even with one kid is left us physically, emotionally, and spiritually imbalanced.”
At this stage in our society, it has been thoroughly ingrained to separate work and leisure, family, and work.
The separation of work and play has been developing for some time. In the 18th century, the school reformer Francke began to implement ‘free time’ for children at school, reflected today in our school ‘playtimes’ and ‘lunchtimes.’ ‘Free time’ was to be in sharp contrast to ‘work time’, which was a central part of the Protestant work ethic. But in assigning a particular time as ‘free time’ at school, all Francke it did was reinforce that work and leisure were separate things and not to be combined. Francke’s philosophy seems to have been one that many others at the time shared and has profoundly affected the way we think about work and play.
And as we moved into the 20th century it became commonplace that one would ‘go to work’, or in other words, you would travel somewhere to do your job. This thinking split the time between family time and work time.
But has this change has been good for the family? It would seem not. Children are no longer able to see their parents working, which in times past has been a significant source of inspiration for children. Not only would children often see their parents working, but they would also be able to join in. Hence why many children followed in the footsteps of their parents when it came to professions.
There are some fair criticisms regarding children following in the footsteps of their parents, often from parents themselves who want “something better” for their children. However, humans are inspired by watching real people doing real things. It is not surprising that children get bored in school as they are asked to live in continually abstract worlds. Most of the tasks involve doing hypothetically meaningful things, in response to hypothetical problems from hypothetical people. Eventually, we actually want to do something real.
Seeing and being part of real work within the family is a far stronger motivation for learning. As Tom Petzinger notes, “The reunion of work and home is only a symptom of a much larger condition; the natural affinity of business and family.”
Yesterday I had a conversation with a young man from Nepal. He had come to New Zealand to study IT. However, after two years of study, he realised how bored he really was. So he left his studies and now works for a scaffolding contractor. When I asked him about his future, he replied that he did want to go back to Nepal and work for his father who owns a construction company. He had been involved in his father’s company growing up and at one point, had been helping both with managing the accounting as well as the practical building work. He was hoping that maybe one day he could take over the family business. I found the man’s story interesting in that while the wider world beckoned, what this man had learnt was that the good life was much closer to home.
The general trend seems to be towards more people choosing the free agent pathway. As more and more people become free agents, we are returning to a more naturally tribal way of living where work, play, learning, and relationships are all blended into each other. Loyalty becomes more personal again. Loyalty is not given to a company, organisation, school or daycare to be responsible for the care of members in the family. Rather loyalty is given in a real way between human beings in a family.
Instead of a mother trying to balance loyalty to a company with taking care of her children, loyalty to her children comes first, and as a free agent, she is able to add work in proportion to her higher priorities. As I have heard in numerous stories from women, there is immense pressure for them to choose loyalty to the company over loyalty to children. After all, children can’t fire you from being a parent, but the immediate possibility of being fired or let go of a job is all too real. So most people take the option that brings immediate security but at the expense of long-term loyalty to the real person who will still be in their life even when they have long left their company behind. This is a sad state of affairs.
But change is happening! The United States, in particular, is leading the way in creating free agents. Because of this, we have seen a massive rise in homeschooling and also unschooling. Unschooling admittedly can be a bit of a confusing term even though it really just means that children are not schooled, they are not put through the structures of school in their path of learning. For the rest of this article, I will label this style of learning as ‘Free learning’. This movement towards free learning is increasingly becoming a feasible move for many people, not necessarily for religious reasons, but rather as a way of integrating their family into a free agent way of living. A great example of this can be seen in following the vlog posts of the Knorpp family on Youtube under the channel name of Knorpp and South.
Free-learning children and families do not have their timetables dictated by the institution of school, but rather they live to their own schedule. The company and organisation models of work were a byproduct of the industrial revolution where society needed workers to all assemble at a specific place and for a certain amount of time to all do the same sort of job. The schooling of children reflected this model. In industrial schooling, children all meet at a specific place for a set amount of time and to all do the same standardised work. And just as pay increases could be obtained for employees through audits and reviews to see if standards had been reached, that the employee had been a “good employee”, so also children were tested and examined, to be rewarded with grades and certificates as well as the approval of the school for having been a “good student”.
Socialisation is the biggest concern that most people have when it comes to ‘free learning’. This is also a concern that adults have regarding working as a free agent. They wonder if it can become very lonely. Socialisation is undoubtedly a valid fear in some respects, but many free agents and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to connect and build networks with other people.
As I described in my podcast yesterday, Daniel Pink puts forward the ‘Hollywood model’ of working. This model is exemplified in the way many films are made. In a film project, there is not one company that directly employs everyone, but rather, there are several free agents and small companies that come together for the project and then disband again afterward. However, the network of connections they have made through the project can later play an important part in who they choose to work with in future projects.
The point is that instead of your social and professional circle being set and managed by the hierarchical structure of an organisation, free agents seek to create their personal networks of people that they can work and share ideas with.
This is similar to what is increasingly happening within the ‘free learning’ model of learning. Through initiatives such as Massive Open Online Courseware (MOOCs), Makerspaces, unschooling resource centres and our host of social networks, people are connecting in a variety of ways that are not limited to the strict age-segregated and isolated model of school.
Despite all the wonders that socialisation at school is said to bestow, one aspect of life seems to have been steadily declining. And that is community — the personal interaction with other people close to us. Being a free agent, and more than a cog in the machine of an organisation may actually provide us with the confidence we need to interact with other members of our community. That we come to realise that we can be of value to our community and that because other people’s loyalty is stronger towards their family rather than towards a company they will also have the time to reciprocate and add their own value to the community surrounding their own family.
I have a feeling that if this comes true, there may also be a reversal of another industrial revolution trend, namely that of urbanisation. As people become more free agents, they will seek to carve out their own life and focus on building their own communities rather than merely wanting to fade into the mass of people within a city.
A powerful example of the building of community came from another conversation I had yesterday. Currently, the 2019 Rugby World Cup is on in Japan. As New Zealanders, we tend to be quite proud of our national rugby team, called the ‘All Blacks’. My conversation partner shared with me how one of his neighbours had built a terraced seating stand from his balcony on the second storey of his house down to ground level. Another neighbour had set up some rugby posts and had hung a large sheet from the crossbar so that the rugby games could be projected onto the sheet and viewed from the “grandstand”. When it was game time all the people in the neighbourhood would come around to have a barbecue and watch the ‘All Blacks’ play. The man told me that it was such an amazing time and it was the first time he had met quite a few of the neighbours. Both firefighters and police also stopped by to take a break, have a cup of tea, and watch the game.
The man told me that all the neighbours believed the idea was a success, well, one old man “complained” that the commentary wasn’t loud enough for him to hear it across the street. The only actual complaint was from the local council. The person who built the grandstand had not obtained a building permit for the structure. The man was asked to take down the grandstand, which he did after the semi-final (where the All Blacks unfortunately lost). He cut up the grandstand, and after writing on the pieces of wood “Rugby World Cup 2019” along with the final result of the All Blacks game, he gave them out as a memento.
As heartwarming as this story was in many aspects, the way that the council reacted to this community-building venture brings me to my final point. There will be pushback against the strengthening of families and communities. The strengthening of families and communities is often at odds with the interests of corporations, governments, and councils. As people become less reliant on an external benevolence to look after them, governmental institutions inevitably become an irrelevant annoyance. However, those with power and control over others do not tend to let go of this power easily. And, as people become freer, expect to see more regulation and restrictions being put in place.
As an aside, I am always astounded as to how many people believe more regulation harms big corporations. It does the opposite, one reason being that more regulation raises compliancy costs and makes it near impossible for smaller companies to make it over the first hurdle. This, in turn, helps to enforce a type of monopoly status for the big corporations.
As one example of this, here in New Zealand, we have a growing tiny house movement mainly because if a house is on wheels, it slips past most of the regulatory requirements. People are choosing the tiny house option as a way of increasing their freedom. However, over the last year, there has been an increase in pressure for regulations and standards. This will once again raise the cost of acquiring these types of homes and make it harder for people to live free.
Yet despite all the pushbacks, I do believe people will push on towards more freedom. We are wired to be autonomous, and the desire to become free will allow us to endure some significant hardships in striving towards a greater goal.
So I hope that more of us can start embracing this trend toward free agency where loyalty becomes personal, and we see a strengthening of both our families and our communities.