Seth Godin is proclaiming the “end of the average worker” – the art, he advocates, is to be different in some capacity and make yourself unique, so that people will find you and pay you more, It has been deduced from this that people without a specialism are discovering that it is harder to find work. It is now – apparently – all about expertise, and not experience. Specialists, it seems, outperform generalists in nine out of ten cases – statistics more akin to cat food preference. Goodbye, then, to the generalist?
Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations (1776) gave us the concept of the division of labour, and – by consequence – “universal opulence” from higher productivity. In this advocacy, it underlined the need for specialisation – each person had their defined role in the process, the sum of which created optimum output. Without this work, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog at all.
In reacting to the perceived injustices of capitalism, Marx in turn prophesised the disappearance of the division of labour, in a memorable passage from the German Ideology (1845) in what is often labelled his “romantic” period:
. . . as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.
Without wishing to debate the desirability of cattle-rearing in the evening, the vision of this time has underpinned the post-industrial concept of the portfolio career, characterised by unhindered flexibility, personal choice and responsibility, ethical organisation and purpose, and co-operative and mutually supportive social interaction.
If we are now facing the renewed importance – even criticality – of specialisation, where does this leave the dream?
I have already railed against the unfortunate, prevailing tendency for your “job” to be considered to define you, to create an instant pictogram of you the human being http://workessence.com/who-the-hell-am-i/. I argued that we are so much more than what we have elected “to do”.
So – is the dream a society of specialists living a flexible working life, beneath a veneer of choice and limited self-determination? Or is it a life of deep, fundamental flexibility, facilitating multiple contributions, changes of direction, the career lattice, and “serial incompetence” (whereby you pursue a role until you have mastered it and then try something entirely new). Is the technological age one that Smith or Marx would recognise?
I hold that we have to be wary of the rise of specialism, as it fundamentally erodes our ability to exercise personal responsibility. It is the tyranny of a single decision in our life, mitigating against the opportunity to pursue alternatives, eroding the courage to exercise that choice through fear of being unable to sustain a living. It says to the individual despite backing yourself and your resourcefulness, forget it.
I will probably elect to spend my evenings doing things other than cattle-rearing – but I value the opportunity to try it if I believe at some future juncture it will make a positive difference to my life. May the generalist survive and thrive.