Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? An astronaut? A cake decorator? A fire truck? Some lucky people find their calling early on and work towards it, learning the skills, getting the work experience, and being happily settled into a career by the time they are twenty-five. By thirty-five they’ll be considered experts, and by forty-five they’ll be the leaders in their field. But these people are in the vast minority. A study cited by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics put the average number of jobs held by baby boomers over their working lifetimes at eleven.
Eleven! That’s very far from the traditional picture of going out, getting a job and working in the same company your whole career, retiring at sixty-something with a gold watch.
For a growing majority of us, the reality is that our career paths will look more like career mazes. We won’t just be changing jobs, we’ll be changing industries, locations, perhaps countries or continents. Skills and technology change so rapidly that we’ll constantly have to learn and educate ourselves to stay relevant.
Do we mourn the loss of the ‘job for life’ mentality? That comfort level, that knowledge that we’ll put in our hours, our years, and retire in our sixties with a little pension?
Well, it can be scary, not knowing what the future will bring. But in many ways, the twentieth-century expectation of a ‘job for life’ has been a fluke rather than the norm. Until recently, and in many parts of the world today, harvests failed, wars changed everything, and people needed a whole range of skills to survive. Running farms, tending livestock, making your own tools: these were just some of the skills you needed. The idea of someone who spends their whole life screwing the tops on toothpaste tubes, perhaps moving up to supervise toothpaste-lid screwing some day, is destined to be a strange hiccup of history, and more to be puzzled at than to be lamented.
Over time, the process of industrialization has moved us towards an ever more narrow definition of specialty, often at the expense of having a decent grasp of many generalized skills. This process has often been positive and an integral part of building an advanced society, but it has come at a price. While we can happily celebrate the neuroscience expert or the mechanical engineer, many of us have experienced the darker side of this development: tedious, unfulfilling jobs working on such a tiny part of the process that we never get to see the whole. Jobs in call centers, on assembly lines, jobs where we push paper from one side of the desk to the other, data entry… the list is long and stultifying.
But the same advances in technology have brought a new world of opportunities to our fingertips. For those of us who want to break through the tedium of the traditional, twentieth-century mindset of work, there have never been so many options to move jobs, locations, or industries. We can learn new skills without leaving our desks, can start new businesses with the minimum of investment beyond a laptop and an internet connection. We can combine our hobbies, interests, and skills in ways that would not have been possible only a few years ago. The whole concept of ‘job’ and ‘career’ is evolving.
It looks like twenty-first century survival will be about a return to generalization and having a whole paint box of skills at your finger tips. Twenty-first century success will be about knowing how to dip into that range of colors and create something unique.
Someone needs to hire a web designer with a background in landscape architecture and a working knowledge of French? Or an accountant who understands the business of livestock photography? Being able to draw on your paint box of skills and experience will not just give you the tools to get by, but you may very well be able to charge higher rates or land a more satisfying job. You might not be an expert in the traditional sense, but being able to mix together several skills from your paint box makes you one of the new kinds of expert: the specialist generalist. In the twenty-first century, having a more diverse range of skills to draw from is an advantage: red, yellow and blue are common colors; chartreuse, heliotrope, and purpure are unusual; you’ve got to have just the right mix of colors to make them. The better you can do this, the more of an specialist generalist you can become.
Image by Flickr user Paull Young