I’ve just finished reading Peter Richardson’s magisterial No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, and what a journey it is. I experienced my first dead show 33 years ago, and have been a dead head ever since. In the book, Richardson identifies three broad themes that have characterized the life of the Dead and the heads that have been hanging their hats there for the past fifty years: ecstasy, mobility, and community.
I won’t rabbit on here about dead shows, no one wants that. However, I do think that there are threads that connect then and now. Specifically, I am talking about mobility and community. In the first chapter of the American Cultural Revolution (ACR) in the late 1960s/early 1970s, millions of young Americans untethered themselves from square, in-the-box lives in suburbia and set out to explore new frontiers of consciousness and community. Crew-cut America fought back with the ‘war on drugs’ and wars, really, on anything that wasn’t inside the picket fence. There have been times when it appeared as though the Reagan-Thatcher years would succeed in herding subsequent generations back to the past, in a kind of boomerang to the 1950s, but alas, that did not happen.
Rather, and thanks to the pioneering efforts and progeny of Baby Boomers, we have more slingshots into an unknown future than ever before. Risk taking and experimentation in life, set in motion in the Bay Area during the ACR, is now alive and well in the lives and careers of Millennials and (some) Gen Xrs. Today nearly 32% of workers in our economy are ‘freelancers,’ and that number is expected to rise to 40% by 2020. Why is this important? Does it really matter?
Millions of young workers today, like their Baby Boomer predecessors (and parents), are saying NO to life inside the box. They have honed their skills to be guns for hire, and are moving from project to project, from city to city, and from country to country, making a living as digital nomads. Freed from the social cage of large companies and their mindless rules, today’s digital nomads are making good on the promise of freedom that was announced many years ago.
This is not, though, a selfish and hedonistic nomadism. Rather, it is more fully committed to community than any cultural movement we have seen since the early days of the ACR. Enter coworking…Coworking has grown from a single coworking community in 2006 to over 5,000 worldwide today. An entire generation (GenFlux) of independent minded souls are out there doing their own things professionally, but in the context of ever expanding local and global communities of others committed to the same type of freedom.
Yet, as the title of Richardson’s book suggests, it is ‘no simple highway.’ Going it alone professionally as a freelancer or small business is an uncertain ride. It is not for everyone, that is for sure. At times being out on the frontier can be quite lonely and empty. Yet, it is the long-term co-presence of other coworkers (or dead heads) that provides support and assurance that we are on to something.
Mobility and community, empowered by technology, are here to stay.
Once, when Jerry was asked about Reagan’s war on hippies in the 1980s, he famously said: “The point is, it happened, there was a revolution, and we won.”