Generation: Freedom Workers


Freedom can mean a lot of things. But in every sense of the word, it liberates.

In the late 70s, when my grandparents moved their family here from Hong Kong, they found work at a bicycle apparel company. Paychecks paid for a home and food. Before my dad had his start in the Silicon Valley, he had learned all there was to learn at an ice cream shop, a restaurant, a bank, and even a butcher shop. Paychecks paid for tuition and his family’s expenses. In short, they had a very narrow interpretation of employment, but it wasn’t out of choice; it was out of necessity. It was everything but liberating.

That American Dream-esque story may not be familiar to a lot of us, and that’s because our labor market is no longer structured that way--at least not in our generation’s expectations. Without studying the economy and labor in extreme depth, it’s clear that our employment trends are taking another turn, for freedom. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the market is adopting a whole new attitude of “work”.

It’s not the industrial era anymore, and workplaces everywhere are finally beginning to catch on. Unless we’re talking Big Ag, the mass production approach to work is outdated and dysfunctional for the modern employee. The cookie-cutter nine to five workday compensated with baseline salary and benefits paints a very different picture today. Sure, we still want all the same things with benefits, vacation time, and bonuses (the fortunate ones), but more than anything, we want flexibility.

Rather than shaping your life around work, work shapes itself around you. Imagine that. It makes all the difference when you’re a parent trying to build a family, a recent graduate trying to build a career, or just someone who wants a life outside of meetings and offices.

These days, Millenials want and look for perks like the ability to work remotely, housekeeping, gym memberships, and cafeteria meals. Marital woes or dieting? Consulting firm Deloitte provides its employees with services like personal trainers and marriage counselors. Clif Bar, a food company that’s been around since the ‘90s, offers on-site “concierge services”--car washes, haircuts, laundry--at their headquarters. It’s as though blurring the lines between personal and professional life is a good thing now.

With this movement, companies old and new are seeing the virtue to offering non-monetary incentives to ensure employees are stress-free and focused on producing quality work. Many are convinced that employees’ happiness factors are directly tied to their productivity in the workplace. And they’re right.

In a decade-long study, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and independent researcher Steven Kramer analyzed over 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees at seven different companies. They found that a third of those 12,000 entries implicated feelings of “frustration, disdain or disgust”. There’s a plethora of research pointing to this problem of a dissatisfied workforce. Gallup even estimates that each year it costs our country between $250 and $300 billion in lost productivity resulting from “disengaged” workers. Things get expensive when the labor market is unhappy.

One can imagine what my family perceives of my decisions to volunteer and freelance, pursue professional school, and dive into nonprofit management. My vision of “making it” is the complete polar opposite from their experience. My lifestyle approach may not yield an immediate Return on Investment, but it does yield overall fulfillment. And as we’ve learned, that’s priceless in our economy.

Work doesn’t have to be work. More importantly, it can be out of both choice and necessity. As Patrick Henry told the Virginia Convention, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”



Progress Principle


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