Rob Paterson offers us a very useful book, You Don't Need a Job (The Rise of the Network). Of course, he does not mean you don’t need an income but there are others ways to earn an income that as a salaried job with an employer. Instead he is talking about what I have been doing since 2004 and an increasing number of others are doing. You can work for yourself as a contractor on multiple projects, initiatives, assignments, or other gigs. Some people started this way to earn a living because they lost their job, others, like Rob, started it because they wanted a change.
One thing that enables this means of earning a living is the rise of networks. Now networks have always been about, it is just that they have been extended through the Web. I worked with Rob for several years writing on the FastForward blog before we met at a conference sponsored by the blog. Then we worked together on another effort without meeting in person during its duration. In this case Rob was serving as a contractor and he made use of software from my company, Darwin Ecosystem, as he served the St. Louis PBS affiliate as they explored ways to integrate social media with traditional broadcast TV. We were both still doing the FastForward work, along several other assignments at the time.
Rob has an interesting chart that shows that in the early 1800s over 80% of people earned their living as free agents. After the industrial revolution took hold, the number dropped well below 20%. Now it is back over 40% as free agency is growing once again in the networked world. The focus has shifted from top-down command and control hierarchies to networks of skilled participants. This change is even happening within companies and those that adopt it will be the leaders of the next economy. Rob’s book provides some very useful historical context so we can see how we got to where we are now and how we can progress beyond it.
I recently re-watched an excellent video produced by the BBC in 1997, Intellectual capital: The New Wealth of Nations. The film portrayed the industrial revolution as a plague on people where workers were treated as mere extensions of machines. Charles Handy makes the same point as Rob, when the workers own the means of production they will be in control. But unlike Karl Marx, Handy was talking about the machines but the intellectual assets within people’s minds that provides them flexibility to move from company to company or become free agents.
Corresponding to this change is the rise of the percentage of enterprise wealth driven from intangible assets. Now the percentage of tangible assets in the corporations in the S&P 500 has shifted from 66% in 1982 to 16% in 1999 and likely continues to fall (see Juergen Daum, Intangible Assets and Value Creation). In its place is the rise of intangible assets as the creators of wealth (over 84% in 1999). These are mostly the ideas in people’s minds. Yet many organizations are still managing people as though the wealth was created by tangible assets, machines, and people are just servants of these machines. It is the network within and outside the enterprise that releases this potential for wealth. Now, as Rob, argues, the network increasingly allows you to do not need an enterprise to create a living. It is increasingly possible to escape the yoke of top down authority by simply working as a free agent.
Moving form historical context, Rob offers a lot if practical advise on how to survive and prosper in the new networked world. You can join a community of free agents to share possibilities and collaborate on work. There are Web sites that support this networking. You can turn a hobby into a living. You can learn something new. He offers a number of useful sources to further your ability to thrive in this new world. I highly recommend the book, whether you are inside or outside an organization. It contains survival skills for all of us.