The Death of Expertise: Why a Few Generalists Will Rule the Future of Work.
On 11 March 1811, a destructive movement emerged in Nottinghamshire and spread rapidly throughout the north of England.
This movement was led by a group of disgruntled textile workers, who had spent the majority of their lives specializing in weaving and feared that the rising popularity of automated textile equipment would replace their jobs and livelihoods.
Up until that day, the skilled workers had lived by the ethos of the time: the more you specialize, the better your financial security.
But this security blanket was unexpectedly yanked off the majority of skilled textile workers, who suddenly found themselves unemployed and unable to make ends meet, because they could no longer compete with the new machines.
Driven by rage and a sense of betrayal, the workers gathered together and vowed to destroy the textile machines that stole their jobs. They called themselves “The Luddites,” named after Ned Ludd, a fictional robin hood type of character who destroyed textile machines.
Late at night, the Luddites would rendezvous to practice drills and maneuvers, and by day they would smash and burn looms, stocking frames and factory machinery.
As the Luddites rapidly grew in popularity across the country, wealthy factory owners recruited over 14,000 soldiers to retaliate with gun violence.
Eventually the British Government passed the Frame Breaking Act of 1812, which made the destruction of mechanised looms punishable by death. Shortly afterwards, several dozen Luddites were charged with crimes, put to death by hanging and shipped off to other countries.
And just like that, in one fell swoop, the anti-technology movement led by skilled, middle-class textile workers, fell by the wayside.
The Luddites quickly became a thing of the past, and the world would move on to deploy the use of more advanced technology in the workplace.
For over 200 years, the deepest fears of the Luddites never came to pass.
Specialists and white-collar workers with deep expertise continued to dominate their field of work and reap the majority of financial rewards, whilst machines worked happily alongside them.
That is, until now.
The Rebirth of the Polymath
“I never teach my pupils…I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
— Albert Einstein
In his famous 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, philosopher Isaiah Berlin divides thinkers into two categories, by drawing reference from the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus who noted that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Berlin explains that whilst hedgehogs “relate everything to a single, central vision,” foxes “pursue many ends connected…if at all, only in some de facto way.”
For many centuries, hedgehogs have been held in high esteem in society, as those who have clocked in their “10,000 hours” to achieve mastery in a chosen field. Meanwhile, foxes have been cast aside as “Jack of all trades, master of none,” “unfocused” and “lacking in direction.”
But there was a time in history when foxes were bred and celebrated by society. It was called the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned from the 14th to the 17th century.
In 1432, an Italian ‘fox’ wrote a letter to commission work from the Duke of Milan, and listed his achievements in a wide range of disciplines including sculpting, architecture, science and mathematics.
The letter did not include his talents in painting, sculpting, music, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.
Suffice to say that the fox got the job, and the letter would later become known as the Curriculum Vitae or CV of today.
That fox was the epitome of a generalist, or formally a ‘polymath’: his name was Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo single-handedly pioneered several unrelated fields, invented the parachute, an armored fighting vehicle, a calculator, an improved version of the helicopter, not least his famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.
Yet it is ironic that despite inventing the CV, a young Leonardo da Vinci would struggle to land a well-paid job in today’s specialist workplace.
In a similar fashion, his contemporary polymaths including the likes of Galileo, Leibniz, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Copernicus, would have wasted their talents and been forced to specialize in the modern education system.
After the renaissance period, the polymath became somewhat of an endangered species. A thing of the past.
But over the last few decades we have witnessed the rebirth of the polymath as a leading public figure: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and most notably, Elon Musk.
All signs point in the direction of an unprecedented period in human history, that will give birth to a new breed of polymaths who surpass those of the renaissance period.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution Has Arrived
“A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
― Isaac Asimov
According to a 2017 Mckinsey report, between 400 million and 800 million jobs globally could be automated by machines by 2030. Meanwhile, another report published by the University of Oxford, noted that a conservative estimate of 47 percent of total US employment is at risk of automation. 9
The mass human cleansing is already underway: driverless cars and trucks, artificially intelligent radiologists, surgeons, chess players, lawyers and accountants.
A quick examination of the drastic differences in the number of employees amongst the world’s largest firms of 1962 versus those of today, should have set off the siren.
In 1962, AT&T had market cap of $20 billion and 564,000 employees, whilst General Motors had a market cap of $12 billion and 605,000 employees. 2
Conversely, in 2017, Apple had a market cap of $800 billion and only 116,000 employees, whilst Google had a market cap of $679 billion and only 73,992 employees. 3
What makes today’s digital revolution so different from the others? After all, humans have collectively survived and prospered throughout the three major industrial revolutions since the 18th century.
The difference is subtle but dramatic: machines are beginning to learn and think for themselves in quantum leaps.
Any doubt that a machine could potentially out-think, outperform and outmaneuver a human, was thrown out the window when the google algorithm beat the worldwide champion of the ancient game of Go—a strategy game that is much more complex than chess.
So-called traditional skilled white-collar jobs that were once deemed as a safety net for graduates, are now ironically the most at risk of being automated.
And old school coveted skills like leadership, management, social influence and time management, have been forcefully overtaken by critical thinking and creativity skills.
According to a world economic forum survey of leading global employers, the top five most in demand skills by 2022 will be: 4
- Analytical thinking and innovation.
- Active learning and learning strategies.
- Creativity, originality and initiative.
- Technology design and programming.
- Critical thinking and analysis.
The most coveted job roles of the future look nothing like those of the past, incorporating these in demand skills: Innovation managers, Data scientists, Software and Applications Developers and E-commerce and Social Media managers.
By 2022, it is estimated that no less than 54% of all employees across the globe will require significant re-and upskilling, as single-skillset job roles rapidly decline.
And those who continue to pursue specialization with zest run the risk of becoming extinct, much sooner than they think.
As automation continues to wipe out repetitive tasks once occupied by skilled workers, entry and middle-level jobs will become scarce, specialists will compete fiercely with one another for lower wages, and eventually, economically viable jobs will only reside at the senior level.
Meanwhile, organizations that fail to innovate and adapt quickly will die a fast and painful death.
Recent history is littered with the graveyards of so called “”too big to fail” corporations that fell off the wall: Kodak, Blockbusters, HMV, Hummer, Toys R Us, and most recently, Walmart is in the biggest fight of its 68-year history against Amazon’s disruptive innovation.
In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, the line of communication between Millennials in the workforce and Baby boomers who lead corporations, has completely broken down—a deloitte survey of workers across 36 countries, discovered that 43% of Millennials plan to quit their job within the next two years, while only 28% of Millennials would be willing to stay beyond five years. 5
In a frantic effort to calm the storm, organizations have resorted to the “gig economy,” whilst policymakers battle with one another over a universal basic income to cushion the impending job crisis.
It would appear that all hope is lost. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
As more disruptive technologies penetrate the workforce in rapid succession and skills gaps widen even greater, those who survive and prosper will be agile lifelong learners.
Their expertise will not be deep like their forefathers, instead it will resemble that of a polymath—a wide knowledge base across unrelated domains.
They will hold the keys to innovation because as studies have found, the best ideas emerge from combining insights from fields that don’t seem connected. There is no one better poised to do so than a generalist. 6
And as the Pareto principle kicks into high gear, there will be a radical shift in the balance of power that mankind has never witnessed before.
For the first time in history, the generalist will rule the specialist.
The Fox Has Overtaken the Hedgehog
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
― Stephen Hawking
The truth is, not all fairy tales have a happy ending. And it would appear that perhaps we have reached the end of the romantic fairy-tale: that of a specialist and a machine working together in harmony.
The breakneck speed of technological improvements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, are beginning to shake the very foundation of the nature of work.
Traditional career paths and the educational institutions that feed them, are no longer the bedrock of job security as they have been for centuries.
And old guard firms and leaders that continue to stubbornly hold onto the notion that “we’ve always done it this way,” will vanish as quickly as fallen autumn leaves swept away by a sudden gust of wind.
The Luddites raised the alarm over 200 years ago. They warned us that a day would come when the specialist would become endangered.
Perhaps it’s time we pay close attention and heed their warning.
Today, many hedgehogs freely roam the hills and rule over the few foxes. Tomorrow, only a few foxes will rule the many hedgehogs.
The era of the specialist has come to an end. The future belongs to the generalist.
2. Compustat via Jerry Davis, “Capital Markets and Job Creation in the 21st Century.”
3. Mark Meeker, “Internet Trends,” Kleiner Perkins, 2017.
7. Not all generalists are polymaths, but all polymaths are generalists.