Free-Range Workers Crossing the Highway of Life

“Free-Range” has become a buzzword applied to everything from poultry to children. And in its broadest sense it applies to today’s workers too.

via Huffington Post

via Huffington Post

I spoke with a man recently who told me about looming layoffs in the financial sector (see this; plus this about the oil industry; and this NYT list of its articles about layoff big and small). He said companies in his arena were shedding people in response to future uncertainty about the Eurozone, among other issues. It doesn’t solve long-term finance industry problems to cut workers, but it does address the balance sheet.

This may sound completely durh to many of you, but in listening to him I thought… We’re out of the Great Recession, but we’re still in a period where people are getting laid off, sometimes en masse, to solve balance-sheet problems they only superficially have anything to do with. In other words, you may end up doing the best you can at a job you like and still have to hit the road through no fault of your own.

Most Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to tide them over in periods of unemployment. Nearly half of the country couldn’t afford an unexpected $400 expense, let alone a month’s rent without income.


I’ve spent time over the past three years interviewing employees and entrepreneurs about how they see the job landscape today. There are more jobs, though often with less stable employment terms and wages, though that may change. (See global trends.)

So what are most of us? Well, free-range workers, which means we are free to run as fast as we can or to get creamed crossing the highway known as the current day job market. Whether we are employed by a company big or small or self-employed, most of us will have to spend more time monitoring the health of our industry and our company if we don’t want to be caught unawares by huge shifts that, on the surface, have nothing to do with our performance.

You can be doing the best you can at Job A for Company B, but if either A or B becomes vulnerable, then your income stream is vulnerable too. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn has written about developing new compacts between employers and employees that take into account more mobility and volatility. That applies most easily to geographically mobile, information industry workers and companies that need and attract them. How does it work for people who can’t or won’t move from their hometown for family reasons, or those whose skills are considered more pedestrian?

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at, which she founded in 1995.