This is a guest post by Permamarks member Arnold Beekes from Amersfoort, The Netherlands.
A growing need for Generalists in the workforce
It is clear that we are in a period of time, which is called ‘transition’, the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. We are coming out of the Industrial Age (characterized by efficiency, repetition and thus standardization – building a ‘system of sameness’ in every aspect of life) into a new age, which some people call the Information Age.
I am not sure about that name, Information Age, as I see information as, the enabler, rather than the purpose and intention in itself. I would like to call it the Age of Connection (characterized by creation, contribution and thus participation – building a ‘universe of uniqueness’), to be truly connected with ourselves, with others, animals and with nature.
But we are not there yet; we are really in this no man’s land, this limbo.
Some of the symptoms of this transition are:
- - High levels of stress and burn-out
- - An increase in feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and discontentment
- - 1% of the people own the wealth in the world
- - Ten mega corporations control the output of almost everything you buy; from household products to pet food to jeans
- - Crises in many areas (economic, financial, climate change, poverty) are not being solved
- - Unemployment, especially for young people, is still increasing
- - Huge distrust in governments and corporations
- - Education doesn’t meet the market’s needs
- - Discrimination (gender, age, race) is still alive
These symptoms indicate that applying the old rules of the Industrial Age to the new game of the Connection Age is not working!
We need to create, learn and apply the rules of this new game. Instead of focusing on what doesn’t work anymore, we need to build new ways of living and working, together.
How does this look, from a perspective of work?
In the old economy, people are used, like parts in a machine which should also generate ROI.
The name ‘Human Resources’ illustrates this. The focus is on repetitive execution and implementation, while increasing efficiency and minimizing risks and faults.
Standardization (a ‘system of sameness’) is the main tool to accomplish this. The leaders determine what the employees should do. The creative powers of employees are not appreciated. The environment is utilized, like any other resource. Sustainability is hardly integrated in pricing and supply-chain policies.
The employees are either experts or managers within a certain domain/silo. Careers are the norm, from the start until retirement.
In the new economy, people are valued for their thinking powers and unique contributions.
The name ‘Partners’ will be extended to all stakeholders, including (former) employees. The focus is on fulfilling the individual and collective purpose of the organization, while fully using the creativity and ingenuity of all people.
A custom approach (appreciating a ‘universe of uniqueness’) both towards people and processes is the norm. Learning from failures is understood to be an inherent part of learning. Creativity and innovation are mainstream activities. The environment is a precious and limited resource. Sustainability is fully integrated in all business practices.
The Partners are experts, Generalists and/or intrapreneurs, across all domains. Most work is project-based and has no geographical limitation.
What are Generalists, and why are they needed?
In most schools, universities, training and professional institutions, people are educated to become experts, specialists in a certain field. This is based on the old Industrial model, where compartmentalization was the main method to organize work.
People would start a career (e.g. sales or finance or a doctor) at a junior level in that particular field, and over time, they would grow into senior positions within that field. One would have reached those senior positions at the age of 50 or 60 or sometimes 70 (see Chinese leaders). The only deviation from that vertical path is to become a manager, again mostly with that same field/domain (a senior sales representative becomes manager of the sales team).
This expert-based model did work well until the 80’s, when it started to crumble as unemployment became very prevalent. Some people argue –quite convincingly– that this old model reached its peak in 1974 .
We are now in this transition, where new roles are being formed. It is therefore, now, that we urgently need Generalists!
A Generalist has expertise and experience in several areas. These multiple areas of interest are gained by training, work, volunteering, MOOC’s, hobbies and of course a insatiable curiosity.
With the Internet and global knowledge at our fingertips, it is so easy to satisfy our curiosity and learn about just any topic. Many young people are comfortable with this fact, and have a wide and deep knowledge in many areas. They speak a couple of languages, have travelled to multiple countries, have volunteered in various fields, held many different jobs and are eager to learn new experiences.
An attitude of lifelong learning is crucial
Change is speeding up, so you have to be flexible and adapt quickly. Some knowledge, which you might have in one area, might become obsolete at the blink of an eye!
I can still recall a former colleague, who was a PDP (a midrange computer system) engineer. When the company stopped producing PDPs, he was at risk of being laid off. So, he wisely transitioned to becoming a document controller for the new quality system. A remarkable move. Think about the makers of watches for children who became obsolete after the introduction of mobile phones!
Previously you could have worked your whole life at a (fixed line) telecommunications company, or a car company, or a steel company or hospital. That has now become an illusion.
Lifetime employment has gone. Lifetime learning has replaced it.
This means that you have to be a Generalist in order to survive and thrive in this 21st century.
We need both Generalists and Specialists
However, it is very unlikely that you will be a specialist in one area for your whole career. There can be many drivers for that change in specialties. It could be that your job gets automated by robots (surgeons!), that you are faced with sickness and now want to help those in need, or that you decide to truly follow your passion of riding horses.
And by playing these multiple specialist roles (sequentially or in parallel) you become a Generalist. For example, someone might start as a copywriter, and then become a graphic designer. Later, a coach, and then maybe a music composer. All those experiences add up to your qualities as a Generalist!
The size and complexity of problems indicate a need for Generalists
Many problems are interconnected and/or international, e.g. sustainability; food; water; energy; transport; healthcare; (youth) unemployment; climate change; financial crisis.
For many years the leaders have been trying to solve these problems with a stovepipe approach by letting experts (who also created the problem in the first place) work on the solution. But because of their limited perspective, and the lack of the capability to connect the dots, the problems are not getting fixed.
A sad example is the UNFCCC negotiations for a new climate change agreement which have been going on for more than 20 years. In order to address these challenging problems, you need Generalists (who see the big picture, and understand the connections) as well as experts who can work on the details of the solution.
What can you do?
First you have to understand that a lifelong career in one domain is an illusion. Then you have to understand that we are as a society in transition, and what you may have been told at school might not be appropriate and relevant for the Connection Age.
The good news – on the other hand – is that you can easily learn new skills and topics from the realm of your own computer. Also a Generalist mindset, which is a mindset for continuously learning and creating, is a recipe for staying healthy and enthusiastic! Burnout and depression are typically related to doing the same (boring) work from your 20s until retirement.
I would suggest gaining experience in as many different areas as possible, while at the same time strengthening your skills in:
- - Collaboration
- - Communication
- - Change
- - (un)Learning
- - Seeing the big picture
- - Detached thinking
- - Synthesizing
- - Listening
Here is a great article about being a Master of Many Trades. Read more in this reading list on Generalists collected via Permamarks:
It is clear, the world needs Generalists, what are you waiting for?