Aug. 13, 2001
He was as still as the steamy, summer air outside, but nowhere near as hot. Which was surprising, given that his publishing venture had just folded and he -- the No. 2 person in the company -- had just been tossed from work, joining the mounting horde of unemployed mediarati loosed upon the sidewalks of New York.
A former colleague, a superb advertising sales executive, a manager with exquisite people skills, he was in no hurry to do much of anything. Quite the opposite.
"I don't know what it is," my friend told me, "but I just can't get motivated around the idea of work anymore."
Maybe it's the natural expression of the exhaustion that follows a party's conclusion, but my ex-associate's mood is, I believe, something deeper, with profound implications for the future of work and companies. He's joining the Opt-Out Society.
Not worth the effort
The Opt-Out Society is composed of the people who have decided that work is no longer worthwhile in an economy in which personal effort lacks meaning or impact. Although it was camouflaged during the five-year dot-com boom -- an orgy of self-indulgence, avarice and (let's be fair) wild creativity -- this subculture was always there, and subtly expanding. With all that toil -- the "24/7" activity, the entrepreneurial adventurism, the schemes and dreams and weekendless weeks -- coming to naught for a generation of upper middle class strivers, it's almost inevitable that a growing number will join my pal and say "Screw it."
By removing itself from the marketplace, this rootless creative pool -- newly suspicious of employer promises, increasingly unbound by anything other than personal loyalty and skeptical even toward the idea of ambition -- will make it progressively more difficult for talent-dependent, hit-driven businesses to compete. The more so because the tools and technologies that enable a free-agent nation are becoming widespread.
As I said, the Opt-Out Society isn't a new phenomenon. In 1994, when I returned from a year overseas to a U.S. just emerging from the last recession, I was surprised to find, in city after city, new venues for 40-something professionals to hang out in during the middle of the workday. "Middle-aged slackers," I jokingly called them -- until I did some research and discovered that economists and sociologists had not only noticed the phenomenon, but labeled it, with terms like "downshifting" and "voluntary simplicity."
I chronicled the movement then in Esquire -- editor Bill Tonelli's headline, "What Makes Sammy Walk?" captured the period splendidly -- and have followed it ever since, even as it moved from the audible upper range of social activity to the quieter but no less insistent bass line.
Your Money Or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence, the bible of the voluntary simplicity movement, remains a top-seller, No. 239 on Amazon.com's rankings almost a decade after it was first published. (In Washington, D.C., a hotbed of sundered ambition, it's No. 12.) Phenomena considered wacky back in '94, such as the concept of "stay-at-home Dads," are now accepted Middle American trends.
The sages of simplicity -- Oprah Winfrey is one -- are, if anything, more popular than ever. On a far more significant level, it's hard not to link the growing, vocal protests against globalization to the belief, particularly among the young, that economics has grown too distant from the concept of the good life.
Many of the most ambitious are slowing down. The advertising agency business saw this starting a decade ago, when freelancing, once a shameful admission of unemployability, became a lifestyle of choice for some of the hottest creatives. It's moved into journalism, where prominent pundits like Mickey Kaus increasingly are self-publishing on the Web. They labor no less -- don't confuse downshifting with laziness -- but they do it for fulfillment. And, in contrast to the new economy boom, they define success in terms beyond compensation.
From a media and marketing angle, it's easy to joke about this: What happens to Fast Company, now that people are slowing down? Will Real Simple get complicated? And certainly, come the next bubble, there will be money to blow and people to blow it. But right now, they're opting out. It will make for a strange recovery.
Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.
Copyright August 2001, Crain Communications Inc.