THE storyline of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly throws the spotlight on two very contrasting attitudes to love. Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly), a young Japanese lady in Nagasaki, falls in love with Lieutenant Pinkerton, an American naval officer on shore leave.

Lt Pinkerton enters into a “temporary marriage” with Cio-Cio San, intending to abandon her when his ship sails. His wife, believing in the sincerity of the relationship, faithfully awaits Pinkerton’s return.

When he finally comes back after three years, he brings his American wife with him. When Cio-Cio San finds out, she is devastated and, consequently, takes her own life.

The tragic story contrasts Madame Butterfly’s commitment and loyalty with Pinkerton’s opportunistic realism. While Madame Butterfly seeks stability and security, seaman Lt Pinkerton is bound to travel the world and seize opportunities when he finds them.

One can argue at length that Pinkerton was callous and immoral or that Madame Butterfly was naïve, and she should have faced reality and moved on.

From one perspective, that pretty much sums up the realities of today’s work world — globalisation and technology have brought fresh opportunities but also eroded job stability and security.

You can delude yourself that things have not changed or adapt your strategies to seize new career and job opportunities.


Rise of the free agent

Since the 1990s, increasing numbers of workers globally have acknowledged that their jobs are not for life.

To remain employable, they have adapted and become “free agents” and “gold collar” workers to take advantage of the fact that employers are increasingly focused on cost control.

They are reducing head counts and not employing highly paid specialists on a permanent basis. But work still has to be done. So, they outsource this work to free agents and gold collar workers.

Free agents generally are young individuals with a few years of specialist experience and expertise. Many are well-educated and can easily earn 30 to 100 per cent more money than their peers in similar jobs.

They prefer not to work for one organisation. They choose to offer their services on short contracts or on a project basis. Free agents take personal responsibility for their career development and advancement, including skill and competency development and enhancement.

Besides this, free agents are also willing to invest in learning new skills, honing their competencies and engaging in their career development. This, in turn, expands the range and scope of jobs and tasks they can take on.

Research also shows money alone does not ensure their loyalty or interest. Free agents also seek work that is challenging and interesting. This gives them an opportunity to grow their career and future opportunities.

Free agents also develop unusually large networks of contacts to ensure a steady flow of work.

In the Singaporean context, the free agent trend is a growing one, especially among professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) in their late 30s or early 40s, who lose their jobs unexpectedly or have difficulty securing a comparable job after being retrenched.

While they may choose to do this temporarily until they land a satisfactory permanent job, some grow to like the free agent career for the flexibility it offers.

Others see the value in no longer having to engage in office politics or being nice to bosses to earn a promotion or bigger bonus.

Becoming a free agent may offer a better work-life balance, with more time for family, especially if one has growing children or aged parents. Even fresh graduates are now looking at the option of becoming free agents when getting a full-time job of their choice is difficult in a highly competitive employment landscape.

For married couples, it is not uncommon to see one partner stay on in a stable job to bring in the basic income while the other spouse strategically opts to become the free agent.

The training infrastructure in Singapore is generally free-agent-friendly too. Courses are available at the polytechnics and through government or union-sponsored programmes, and enable free agents to upgrade their skills or learn new ones. This gives them the flexibility to work in jobs that cross industry boundaries.

In today’s economy, many companies outsource non-core work and processes to free agents.

Small companies rely on this group of workers for services ranging from graphic design to conducting orientation and training workshops.

Free agents are also engaged to cover the duties of managers on long maternity leave, extended leave and sabbaticals.

In addition, firms also engage free agents to assist with change management and product launch projects.

In short, free agents are multifaceted and can be hired for a wide spectrum of professional services.


Article by Kamal Kant, a part-time lecturer in Careers, Employment Relations and Management at Nanyang Technological University and SIM Global Education. He conducts career workshops and career coaches in his spare time.