Free-Agent Nation

There have always been narcissists out there, but they weren’t always able to run amok quite as they do now. Decades ago, the road to success mostly went through large organizations. In our current culture, however, individualism reigns. From CEOs to athletes to actors, we live in a world where the self-made man is king, for better or worse. For the would-be titans of yesteryear, succeeding in business typically meant climbing to the top of a big corporation and learning to work with—and be subordinate to—others along the way. When William H. Whyte wrote his 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, many of the characteristics of an entrepreneur could be a serious liability for an ambitious young businessman. In the postwar era, the vast majority of career opportunities were with large companies where you were expected to take orders from others, follow procedures, and keep your impulsivity in check. In those days, success meant finding a place to call home, rising within its ranks, and retiring with a gold watch decades later. Big business didn’t only run the corporate world; it ran other spheres as well. Top athletes were essentially owned by their sports teams, musicians and actors were essentially owned by their studios, politicians were beholden to party bosses, and nearly all reporters were on the payroll of media corporations.

In today’s “free-agent” culture, however, far more people are in charge of their own careers and destinies. Sports stars jump from team to team, directors and actors have their own production companies, politicians have their own unaffiliated PACs, and musicians become famous on YouTube rather than via a studio. And in business, a bright twenty-five-year-old with a good idea can raise millions of dollars, completely skipping over the dues-paying and hoop-jumping of corporate culture.

The transformation of the business sector has been especially profound, with the explosion of entrepreneurship over the past few decades reflecting a number of changes in the economy.

The shift away from manufacturing to an information and services economy has greatly lowered the cost of doing business and dramatically shortened the time frame for growth. Creating goods once required building factories filled with machinery, employing lots of workers, and sourcing a steady supply of raw materials. Now high-value goods can be created by smaller groups of technologists or by those sitting in front of computers, such as programmers and designers. And when actual physical goods do have to be produced—e.g., consumer electronics—the process is cheaper and far more flexible. There’s no need to build your own factory when you can outsource production to someone else, particularly if you can find someone in a country with rock-bottom labor costs.

A second shift is the availability of capital. A single individual with a good idea can now mobilize tens of millions in venture capital money to pursue that vision. For those willing to take risks and think big, the barriers to entry are lower than ever. And they continue to lower as innovation rushes forward. The Internet companies started in the 1990s were much cheaper to scale up than were the software companies created by people like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison in the 1980s. In turn, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga that rose during the most recent tech boom were even cheaper to get up and running because of developments like cloud computing.

And so what of the company man of the 1950s and ’60s? The employee who is a steadfast team player, committed to the glory of the organization rather than his own? There is the sense now that this is the path of the boring and unimaginative. If you’re so great, we ask, why are you working for someone else?

Of course, many people were unhappy with the rigidity of midcentury corporate culture, not to mention how unwelcoming it was to women, gay people, and minorities. There are more opportunities outside of big institutions than ever before, and that’s good news for many of us. But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater in the pursuit of freedom? Do we now put the self-made man on such a pedestal that we forgive all his shortcomings, however destructive?