Workplace experts have been pondering lately whether the future of work belongs to specialists or generalists, thereby raising concerns about whether we’re doing the right thing if we decide to pursue one route over another.
These concerns are quite valid, indeed: as a specialist you might be afraid that you’d be spreading your energy too thin if you go down the generalist road and, on the other side of the spectrum, as a generalist you may be lacking the time, resources or just plain old desire to overspecialize in one single area.
Regardless of our own preferences and inclinations, what are the realities of the job market?
If you’re a recent graduate or a much-bashed millennial, you have had your fair share of trying to persuade your potential bosses that you’re the best thing that could ever happen to them. Throughout your job search, you must’ve noticed that recruiters are very rarely looking to hire a “jack of all trades, master of none,” And even if there are such opportunities here and there, they’re usually on the lower end of the pay scale due to high supply. Yes, most people are generalists and humans have always been generalists as a means of survival, but unfortunately it’s not where the money is in today’s rampant, merciless economy.
Imagine you’re running your own business and it’s time to find someone that’ll help you increase your company’s bottom line and boost profit. Would you give preference to a candidate who can perform the required tasks in an excellent fashion or a candidate who can sorta, kinda complete the tasks, along with 10 other useful things which are not really related to your business needs?
The chances are that you would want the candidate to see your project as a priority, not just an option. Employers are looking for single-mindedness, commitment and dedication, they don’t want to know you have ambivalent feelings about their ad you stumbled upon by accident at 2 am.
To set your job search on the right track, first define your mission statement (also known as your personal brand or elevator pitch) as an employee; yes, even your “one (wo)man show” is a little enterprise that needs a clearly defined purpose. This is where being a specialist comes in incredibly handy, as defining a mission statement becomes so much easier.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and the same applies for answering the question whether you should specialize or generalize.
According to the author and futurist Jacob Morgan, you should aim to become a hybrid, by adopting a strategic T-shaped employee skill set. A T-shaped employee, in the context of human resources, is both a niche-topic specialist and a generalist with soft skills.
The top line of the T (breadth of general knowledge) is a general skillset that gives an employee a broad range of understanding and capabilities. These are usually soft skills because of their easily transferable nature. Underneath that top line is the vertical line of the T (depth of expertise) that allows the employee to delve deeper into a specific expertise.
It also goes without saying that being a top notch expert in a particular area doesn’t mean you should rest on your laurels and stop continually honing other specific skills to stay competitive in an oversaturated marketplace. That’s right, the voracious and unrelenting economic growth would want us to become an expert in more than one field, do so in a reasonably short time, all the while maintaining a healthy work-study-life balance… but of course, you’re not obliged to do anything that could lead you to the infamous occupational burnout.
Staying radically open to new ideas and remaining flexible for the sake of professional or personal growth is just enough.