While it’s not what the prevailing wisdom might expect, “down” economies are actually times of incredible creativity. So much so, that one might think of the “stable” economy as a forest that’s ultimately doomed to stagnation unless there’s an occasional fire, and very occasionally a really intense blaze, to generate new vision, different understanding, and a redefinition of challenges. It might sound like lofty thinking unless we look around and see how people are responding – both in terms of work, and in terms of what they’re buying – on top of the “scorched” earth around us.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece on how entrepreneurs are seeing a rise in demand for made-to-order goods. There’s enhanced demand for everything from custom mattresses (mine are custom) to specially made toilet paper (want it with green materials, softer, stronger, or a certain pattern – it can be done) to one-of-a-kind pet food (for instance, does your dog or cat need certain nutrients for relief from allergies). Not only does this mean a book for cottage industry, entrepreneurs and investors, stagnating traditional small businesses that are willing to adapt (charge premiums, become more service oriented, emphasize online shopping alongside brick and mortar, aim at new demographics), but it also means there’s a healthy demand out there for goods and services – just perhaps not the ones we’re thinking about or acknowledging.
If we started with the notion that times like these are opportunities, that an economic crash is part of a culture’s way of reinventing itself (regardless of the actual causes), then suddenly the general panic about there not being enough work, not enough jobs, about the market being reticent and slow, perhaps reflects not the actual state of affairs, but our failure to adjust rapidly enough, to think creatively enough. If we wait for someone to bail us out too, we’ll be displaced not by “the economy”, which is a nothing word – a word that means “the things that happened” or just “things”, but rather we’ll be outmoded, outdated, outdistanced by ourselves, the providers of goods and services being reticent and slow. Perhaps it has nothing to do with jobs – to wait for jobs is to wait for someone else to define our worlds for us. But that’s how we got here, isn’t it? If there’s a messaging playing on the economic billboard, it’s “start doing your own thinking – carry your own card – plan your own future – don’t rely on what you’re given, rely on what you create”.
It’s easy, I know, to say that if one is a creative person in most things, if one already has a solution, etc. But that’s really what Free Agency is about. Free Agency provides a way for everyone to “tote their own note” when it comes to the workplace and the market for work. If you can do something, you can sell what you do, and all this economy means is that it’s time to sell it in a new way, to adjust it a bit for the way things will be and stop pining for what was. Not to sound as vague as a political speech, I really think being tossed from the illusion of “job security” into having to fend, find, and fare for yourself after forty, isn’t a hiccup – it’s the market saying that’s the new norm, that we’re not going to get another period, in the future, where we can expect business as usual – any business – for the span of an average person’s working lifetime. Career change, starting over – those will be the norm. Even after we “get past” this “current economic situations”. What if this is the new norm, and there’s no getting past, nothing to get past, this is the way it is now? What if society now changes so rapidly, markets evolve so quickly, and demand responds so immediately, that you’ll never again get to hope for that lifelong career in just about anything, at least not for most people?
It needn’t be a horror story. There’s some relief to it, I think. We cast such things in fearful terms. We have movies and TV shows about people who spent their whole lives doing X, and suddenly “ruined their careers”, or “got fired after 50”, or became a victim of downsizing, technology, the economy, or any of the other things that can “victimize” us. This is one of our cultural bogey men, one of the haunting tales we tell ourselves behind our eyelids after dark. But what’s so bad about getting a break, being given the opportunity to change? Where is it written that we’ll be stock brokers all our lives, that we won’t at age 40 or 50 need to decide to do something else? Why is there shame in it, too, of all things? All of that’s outdated – it’s a vestige – part of the death rattle – of the old pension-based work culture. The new contract-based work culture is the market’s compensation for how slow we were moving. It’s the market (by which we mean society in general, not just some nebulous economic essence) telling us it’s going to go faster, that we were riding the brake, that faster innovation, more responsiveness, greater adaptability is required to make what it is continue to make sense. The market, friends, is a vehicle of growth. In the old days, we said “of progress”. What do we think that means? It means it can’t stay in first gear.
So, it’s up to us now to either be Sunday drivers, as traffic passes us on both sides, or do a little Mario Andretti, even if it feels like bumper cars for a while. Time to think about how we can drop the transmission into third, grab hold of the wheel, and do some creative driving. Being a Free Agent is one way. If you’re still driving the Model-T version of work, it might seem like the door to door vacuum cleaner sales version of a “job”, but things have come a long way since then, baby. Contract work is big time, now. From project manager to marketing guru, health care, expense reports, corp to corp contract, it’s not your grandfather’s “temp” work. There’s also hanging out your own shingle, and running that corp yourself. Nothing wrong with that. Six of one. It doesn’t hurt to have multiple irons in the fire, more than one income stream – in fact, the people that are most “recession” proof, if that’s really what this is (I don’t think so), are those who do in fact make money from more than one source. That’s the new way, too. Don’t fill up at just one pump – get your gas in a couple of places or more. That’s how it works if you plan to get out of first gear. Society (the market) is moving faster than that now, so too must we all.