Marginal Revolution: Is the generalist returning?

This Marginal Revolution article, based off the article “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor” from The Atlantic, brings up a good point about specialization and generalizing: our current economy may be diverging from the standard theory that bigger and more complex economies and industries require more specialists.

Or in other words, you may not wish to specialize with your truly scarce factor, namely labor. 

Marginal Revolution: Is the generalist returning? by  Tyler Cowen June 24, 2019 at 12:38 am 

We are seeing this in my company. In the past, we had specialists in most areas. In the last few years, speed and flexibility have become more important. In order to get that speed and flexibility, employees that have more general skills are more valuable because we can move them around to meet specific needs.

This is true on the production floor, engineering, and even IT. Having Business Analysts that can jump in and help any of the departments improve is better than having Business Analysts that can only support one or two departments.

Obviously, this is a function of the size of company. finding or building a BA that can effectively jump into any department of a billion dollar company is really hard. Project Managers, sure. BAs, not so much.

If this is true, and I think it is, what are the implications for those at the beginning of their career? The initial take is to head into careers that are more general or make sure you don’t limit yourself.

This does not, however, mean the death of the specialist. Maybe it means the opposite. The BA generalists I mention above will frequently require help in deeper technical knowledge. They will need programmers, deep ERP experts, deep business experts to support their efforts to improve the business. Those people will deeper more specialized knowledge for the BA to use.

So maybe developers need to be more specialized, focusing on one technology or platform? Maybe not. There has long been a class of programmers that fit the cliche of “a champion can win on any field”. They are very good at picking up new programming languages, connecting to new interfaces, understanding new kinds of databases. Maybe their specialty is not the specific of the technology, but their ability to create software to meet a need. Those developers are more valuable than a developer than only knows one language and one database.

So maybe each career (an ill-defined word here) is really a set of generalist skills and specialty skills. Those that can build a strong set of generalist skills and and apply them to needed, and ever changing, specialty skills are what is really in the highest demand.

The ability to learn quickly does then become a fundamental life skill.