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Free Agents: A Breed Apart

Whether you're itching to ditch corporate America or you've already hitched your wagon to a solo star, you're different. And you're fitting in just fine.

used to have it all, or so she thought. She had a plum job on Capitol Hill as a congressman's staff director, the respect of peers and the allure of the power of politics. Then she looked more deeply at what she was doing, and she realized there was more to be gained in the New Economy.

In January 2000, Vance ditched all the trappings of the traditional day job-the camaraderie, the benefits, the steady paycheck-to go it alone with AdVanced Consulting, a Washington, DC, political advocacy consulting firm. She has a handful of clients, a few long-term commitments, the freedom to work when and how she wishes-and she has a ton of fun in the process.

Sure, some friends still ask Vance, now 34, about the latest scoop on the soap operas and how the bon-bons taste. But she's content to chart her own course. "That's what being a free agent is all about: the flexibility to do my own thing," she says.

Free agent. It's the mantra of the New Economy, an era where employees have become entrepreneurs and are selling their services back to the companies that used to issue them a salary, benefits, a W-2 and not much else.

The term begs some definition: It doesn't just connote self-employment; it's a mind-set. Free agency, at least for those who ascribe to the clique mentality promoted by trend-watchers, is as much about work style as it is about work. It is the career move, not just a stepping stone on the path to a better job in corporate America.

A free agent isn't necessarily someone who makes a product to sell to the masses. Generally, a free agent is a consultant, an information peddler, someone who has spent some time in the corporate realm and headed off on his own to do the same job-only for himself.

Just How Many Are There?

knows free agency. He has lived and worked as a free agent since the mid-1990s, when he gave up a post as then-Vice President Al Gore's chief speech writer. As founder of FreeAgentNation.com, an information hub for independent workers, Pink estimates that some 30 million free agents work amid the American landscape, including "ruthlessly small" microbusinesses, "nanocorporations" and even 3 million temporary workers who ditch the regularity of staff work for the self-defined and self-timed parameters of agency gigs.

Free agency can be traced back to the 1980s, when corporate America sought to trim the fat by casting off its work force en masse, says Pink. Those jettisoned were left to find work for themselves; those lucky enough to keep their jobs were left to worry if they'd be next. Amidst it all, the bond between worker and employer weakened as people realized they were so much unappreciated chattel. "People's expectations from corporate America have waned," says Pink. "People want money and meaning from work."

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