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BusinessDay: Generalists take the lead at the end of the era of specialisation

‘Tenure’ is a concept of a bygone era. ‘Pivot, change and adaptation’ characterise the modern career landscape.

By Johan Steyn, 10 May 2022

“What kind of job do you want to do one day?” This is one of the interesting questions children discuss among themselves. My son is now at the age where this topic features often when his friends visit after school. I listen in with interest.

They naturally want to do audacious things. Some aim to become superheroes. Others, soldiers or firefighters. A heroic life journey seems to be an inborn dream in children.

My son wants to be a tattoo artist. There goes my pension plans, I reckon. Why not a golfer or a doctor? Nope, tattoos it will be. My 19 tattoos — all neatly hidden when I dress in corporate garb — must have been his inspiration.

As we grow older we are met with the realities of adulthood. We still dream of doing big things but the realities of life quickly smother our fanciful thinking. We have to find a job that pays the bills. There may not be money for tertiary studies. Limitations colonise the territory of our dreams. As parents we want our children to be successful, to find a career that results in financial independence and hopefully also happiness.

Here is an interesting exercise to conduct with your colleagues. Ask them what they wanted to become “one day,” or what they were trained for after school. Then compare it with what they are doing today. In my experience, it is rare to find a person who found a career that they dreamt about since childhood, or even what they trained for.

I am reminded of the 1997 hit song Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) by Baz Luhrmann. “Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life ... the most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

To make a living, we are encouraged to find something we could specialise in.

We need to do something we have learnt through training or experience that makes us better than others. Employers look for specialists to do work that others cannot do and remunerate according to the rarity of the area of specialisation.

Gone are the days when people start a career as a young person and continue faithfully in the same organisation, or even in the same area of specialisation until they receive the proverbial gold watch when they retire. “Tenure” is a concept of a bygone era. “Pivot, change and adaptation” characterise the modern career landscape.

Specialisation is itself a vastly changing concept. In the smart technology era, where machines can already perform most tasks typically done by human workers, one is left to wonder what our children should aim to specialise in.

Humans are losing their jobs as a result of the rise of machines. Because of technological advancements in automation and robotics, artificial intelligence has demonstrated in recent years that it is capable of doing jobs on par with, or better than, human specialists. If bots do what we do better, what is left for humans to do?

In his 2019 book Range, author David Epstein argues that generalists rather than specialists are more likely to succeed in a wide range of fields. If you're looking for a career path, you're probably looking to be a generalist. Epstein makes the argument for a “sampling period” where people are exposed to a wide range of experience and potential career choices rather than specialising early on.

Perhaps a gap year for young people is not such a bad idea. Our children should not pursue a career when they still know little about life, and they should be trained for potential careers alongside digital colleagues where areas of human specialisation will increasingly become less important.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA.


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