You really can do it your way

Workers in the US are turning their backs on the bosses and making a good living in their own homes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If The answer to any of the following questions is "yes", then you may be ready to join in the European vanguard of a silent revolution that is sweeping America.

Do you hate office politics?

Does the thought of taking coffee breaks, lunch breaks and holidays whenever you damn well choose sound appealing?

Are you bitter about colleagues who refuse to pull their weight?

Do you despise the fears and resentments that pollute corporate life?

Would you rather not leave for work at the same time every day, and not have to choose your wardrobe to conform with workplace respectability?

Do you think your boss is a moron?

Terri Lonier is the Lenin of this movement, which is seeing more and more people working outside traditional corporate structures. She says: "I believe we are witnessing the biggest revolution since the industrial revolution."

More than one-sixth of America's working-age population - close to 27 million people - do not owe allegiance to a single employer. According to Link Resources, a New York-based group that gathers statistics on market trends, the number will have risen to 36.5 million by 2001.

These people work mainly from home, selling their skills in the open marketplace. Plumbers, electricians and house painters have been doing it for years. What is strikingly new is the sheer scale of a phenomenon that straddles the social classes and promises to redefine the nature of work in the 21st century.

Whether your field is marketing, sales, advertising, journalism, secretarial work, banking, catering or hi-tech, possession of a saleable skill will provide you with the opportunity to go it alone, to shape your life free of the traditional corporate grip.

Terri Lonier's mission is to spread the word; her business, Working Solo Inc, dispenses advice to individuals who wish to go it alone and to big businesses eager to tap into the pool of independent talent. She has published two books - Working Solo and Working Solo Sourcebook - and she is in constant demand as a lecturer.

Unlike earlier revolutionaries, she does not need a live audience. Lonier works from home in the Hudson Valley, 70 miles north of New York. She reaches her followers via her web site (www.workingsolo.com) and has clients all over America, most of them a continent away in California's Silicon Valley. It is no coincidence, she says, that the new working culture began to mushroom in the late 80s and early 90s, when personal computers became affordable to large groups of people: "Then in the last two years we've seen remarkable growth because of the Internet, which gives people the the opportunity, by creating their own web pages, to set up their own instant store fronts."

The age of the computer has coincided with the era of corporate downsizing and a growing concern about the quality of people's lives.

Hollywood offered a case study of this revolution inthe film Jerry Maguire, which starred Tom Cruise in the title role. Overwhelmed by the futility of his corporate job, Maguire undergoes an epiphany and lectures his bosses on the importance of honesty and quality, neither of which figure high on their list of priorities. Naturally, Maguire is fired, but he rebuilds his life as an independent sports agent, discovering that the escape from the tyranny of the corporation was the necessary first step towards greater happiness and humanity.

DAN PINK, until recently the chief speech writer for Vice President Al Gore, is a flesh-and-blood example of the capitalist New Man. A 33- year-old graduate of Yale Law School, Pink had been a resounding success at the political game in his 10 years in Washington DC. He could have expected to play a key role when Gore runs for the presidency in 2000, but, with pleasing symbolism, he chose Independence Day this year, the fourth of July, to forsake the power and glory of the White House for the freedom and self-sufficiency of "the Pink House".

"My choice had nothing to do with economic forces," he says. "It had to do with squishier, softer things - like I love my wife and my daughter and I want more control over my life. I was spending more time with my beeper than with my little daughter. Working in the White House, I had to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If I didn't wear a suit and tie, tongues wagged."

Over coffee at 11am last Wednesday, Pink - sporting a loose sweater over a T-shirt - said that as a work environment the White House was probably better than the average Fortune 500 firm. "But there were still the office politics ... Now, I have a better correlation between labour and reward," he said during the leisurely 90-minute conversation. "And I make more money. Twice as much as before."

The new Pink works from home as a freelance journalist and occasional speech writer. Recently he wrote a major article for Fast Company, a magazine dedicated to reporting new trends in business. In the course of his research he travelled 7,000 miles around the US, interviewing dozens of those 27 million self-employed people. He has become a leading authority on the rise of these "free agents", as he calls them.

"This has happened extremely quietly. Because it has emerged from people privately making individual decisions, it's happened below the political and media radar screens. Yet the collective force of it is gigantic. Traditional jobs will not be the only way we organise work in the future; soon they may not even be the most common way. "

What beckons is a redefinition of the role of unions, of pensions and health benefits - of politics itself. "The political discourse of the left is to celebrate the creation of jobs; of the right to celebrate entrepreneurs. The free agent falls somewhere in between," Pink explains.

COMPUTER technology provided the tools for individuals to work alone, but, according to Pink, the engine of the free agent revolution has been the fundamental change in relations between workers and employers. "The loyalty/security trade-off is a thing of the past. Companies say: 'We can't afford to give security.' Consequently, workers say: 'We can't afford to give loyalty.'"

Until recently, employees who put up with indignities at work consoled themselves that "at least" they could count on a pay cheque to cover their mortgages, their children's educations, their retirement. Now that "at least" has gone, and the curious consequence is that the successful free-agent life is more secure than that of the successful employee.

Lonier has reached the same conclusion as Pink. "What we have today is not job security but skills security," she says. "Being an individual entrepreneur, you are a lot more secure because you can diversify your income. As an employee, you have one income source. If the company decides they no longer want you, you're at ground zero. If you work independently, you have many clients; your business is more resistant to market change."

The degree of stability will fluctuate from individual to individual, however, and the determining factor may be temperament as much as ability. But for those who have the confidence to make the leap, the principal reward is a liberation of the spirit. Among the downsizing victims Pink interviewed, he found some who had come to the joyous realisation that by losing their jobs they had found their lives. "Some said this was the greatest thing that had ever happened to them, because it had freed them to do what they really wanted to do."

Not only is work less of a grind, it is pleasingly integrated into everyday life. If you want to go to a film matinee, you can work at night. If you need Friday off, you can work Saturday. You are free of the workplace's regulations and the peer pressure to be seen to be productive all the time.

These are the reasons why Dan Pink has no regrets at having abandoned a career that could have led to his becoming one of the more influential people in the world.

"I can't imagine a job that would lure me away from this," he says. "Maybe if an employer offered me two million dollars a year to read newspapers all day, I might." He reflects a moment. "But, no, I don't think so. Even for two million dollars I don't think I'd give up what I now have."

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