Is the generalist returning?

By Tyler Cowen

It would be supremely ironic if the advance of the knowledge economy had the effect of devaluing knowledge. But that’s what I heard, recurrently, while reporting this story…If that’s the case, I asked John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? ‘You shouldn’t!’ he replied.

That is from a new Atlantic piece by Jerry Useem.  In essence, the division of labor may be running in reverse in some endeavors.  In Adam Smith’s argument, division of labor and specialization increase with the size of the market.  But say a mix of Moore’s Law and globalization means that software (output and operations) expands rapidly, yet companies seek to shed labor costs due to competition.  At the margin the new demand might be for generalists, who can step in whenever unforeseen problems arise which need fixing.  Or in other words, you may not wish to specialize with your truly scarce factor, namely labor.  In contrast, in Smith’s time, demographics were favorable and labor was pouring into cities from the countryside.

As for the Navy:

The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

And:

Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone. Ten years from now, the Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects, 70 to 90 percent of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or superjobs—that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.