Specialist vs Generalist – What is The Role for The Future?

Should you be a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ versus ‘master of one’? This is a tough ask and has become the ultimate career dilemma today. Irrespective of whether you are a beginner or at a mid-level in your career, whether to be a specialist or a generalist is a tough choice to make. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and the future of work, such as jobs in media, might well be defined by a middle path between these two approaches. Let’s deep dive into this debate and find out.

The generalist at work

Given their broad knowledge of a lot of subjects, generalists tend to have loosely defined roles, with flexible KPIs, within organizations. For instance, a general medicine practitioner might attend to patients of varying age groups, presenting with a broad range of symptoms.

The good part about being a generalist is that a wide variety of skills offers greater scope to market oneself and ensures better job chances. Given today’s gig economy, generalists can take up multiple freelance jobs as ‘career flexibility’ is one of their strongest suits. On the corporate front, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, organizations are valuing generalists for their ability to multi-task, see the bigger picture, and work with different departments to solve issues. Generalists also have more transferable skills - a critical aspect in ensuring business scalability.

The biggest disadvantage of being a generalist, however, is the trade-off between depth and breadth. Having knowledge of several things prevents one from mastering a single discipline to the best extent possible. This makes generalists more replaceable on job and breeds job insecurity.

The specialist at work

Unsurprisingly, it takes more time to be a specialist in any discipline and that’s the reason specialists often earn more, even at entry level jobs. They have tightly defined job roles and organizations often employ fewer specialists than generalists, meaning that the dependence on specialists is way higher, making them more valuable and difficult to replace. Over time, specialists have the potential to become thought leaders in their area of expertise, making them highly sought after professionals.  Is there a flip side in being a specialist? Yes, and factors such as career inflexibility, limited opportunities pool, and the fear of being replaced by robots and other emerging technologies looms large for specialists. 

Who will rule the future of work?

Do employers prefer specialists or generalists? While most would answer ‘it depends’ when faced with such a question, the reality is, adopting a middle path might lead candidates to a better predicament. T-shaped employee skill set – a combination of generalist and specialist skills is increasingly becoming the go-to choice for employers as a best of both worlds solution. The horizontal top line of the T represents generalist skills and capabilities, while underneath it, the vertical line represents the ability to deep dive and specialize in a particular aspect.  The future of work will be dynamic. The most important skill for jobs in India will be the ability to unlearn and relearn constantly and a T-shaped skill set will prove to be ideal in helping one do just that.

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