I have argued several times that specializing in the 21st century is a bad idea. Paradoxically, one of the reasons it’s a bad idea is the reason why it was a good one a few decades ago: automation.
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In the recent past, automation took over the most manual and repetitive jobs that once employed several people. The new generations had to find new jobs that were too complex to be done by machines.
These jobs required expertise. And wherever there is expertise, there is competition. For that reason, everybody had to find a niche, and become better and better than the competition to survive and thrive in the job market.
So, what’s wrong with specializing now? Automation is getting smarter and competition is getting larger, mainly for three reasons:
  • Increased overall wealth. People are wealthier than before, more people can afford higher education, more people become highly specialized and competition increases.
  • The Internet. The Internet has connected people that could not easily communicate before. This increased competition and the required standards for most jobs. Think about freelancers: you can hire anyone anywhere in the world. Wouldn’t you just expect to find very good professionals even at low prices?
  • Artificial Intelligence. AI is getting better and better at specializing and replacing us. To succeed in your niche, you have to be the best. But what will you do when AI becomes the best? I wrote other stories (like thisthis, and this) about our relationship with AI in the future. Here, I just want to make a point on the role of specialization for the next couple of generations.
What does it mean for the youngest generations, Millennials and Gen Z?

The Job Market Will Transform Every Decade

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Even before AI becomes better than us at doing just about anything, we are already seeing the effects of the insane competition that has been catalyzed by the Internet.

Market Saturation Is Almost Immediate

Some professions are relatively recent, yet they almost saturated their respective markets in just a decade. Some examples are:
  • Bloggers
  • Youtubers
  • App developers
  • Influencers
  • Professional gamers
It doesn’t mean that these markets are disappearing, but that the barriers to entry are too high. People have short attention spans. It’s difficult to try to grab people’s attention while Kim Kardashian is flooding 200 million Instagram feeds.
The reality is that the newer a market is, the more aggressive it becomes. Kim Kardashian has to satiate the attention of her followers every day posting a picture of her butt. She can’t take a break. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but her job may actually be very demanding. If she stops Kardashianing for a while, someone will take her place in a matter of days.
But what about traditional, less Kardashiany professions?
They are still dependent on the evolution of society, that can happen overnight. A very relevant example is the current pandemic.
What happened to restaurants, barbershops, and night clubs? What happened to online shops, Zoom, and Netflix?
People involved in the former category suffered greatly, and couldn’t predict it before the pandemic. People involved in the latter category thrived, and couldn’t predict it either.
But it is just for the short term, right? Think again.
Businesses like restaurants and night clubs will probably keep suffering for years. Even if they have already partially reopened in some countries, there are several rules to avoid overcrowding. This will prevent these businesses to get many customers for a long time.
Some people learned to cut their own hair during the lockdown (I, on the other hand, ended up looking like a Super Sayan), and may not go to a barbershop anymore, or do it only on special occasions.
If societal habits and aggressive new markets won’t hurt your profession, AI will eventually. AI will eventually replace any profession, but again, this is another story.
In the near future, we won’t have to worry about becoming jobless. Every time some professions disappear, other professions emerge.
This has always been true since the first Industrial Revolution, but now it’s happening too fast. People are still wondering whether they should learn to code while coding is already starting to become outdated.
But what does it mean for the youngest generations? If you are in your twenties, do you really think you will be doing the same job you are doing now when you will be in your fifties?

You May Need to Go Back to School

Technological progress grows exponentially, and the job market evolves consequentially. Nobody can know for sure how we will handle this situation in the near future.
Here I will describe one possible scenario, although it’s just one of many hypotheses. This idea can turn out to be completely wrong. Don’t look at it as a prediction, look at it as an example: I want to show you that we need to start thinking about new ways to define the role of work in our society.
Nowadays, we usually divide our life into three parts that look something like this:
  • 18 years of education.
  • 40 years of work.
  • 20 years of retirement.
In the future, this structure may be changed to something like this (taking into account a possible extended life expectation):
  • 16 years of education.
  • 12 years of work.
  • 3 years of education.
  • 12 years of work.
  • [repeat last 2 points for 2 more times]
  • 40 years of retirement.
Basically, you would need to reinvent yourself every 15 years.
But are we mentally capable to do this without going insane? It’s easy for people in their twenties to reinvent themselves. It’s still doable for people in their thirties. It’s a rare circumstance for people in their forties. As we grow older, we want more stable lives, and we may get tired of re-educating ourselves every 15 years.
Maybe a “gap triennial” would allow us to handle this better, psychologically speaking? In this alternative scenario, we can “rest” for 3 years each cycle, so we can explore what we really like and want:
  • 16 years of education.
  • 9 years of work.
  • 3 gap years.
  • 3 years of education.
  • 9 years of work.
  • [repeat last 3 points for 3 more times]
  • 28 years of retirement.
Would this be enough? After all, we are still getting older, with or without gap years. Maybe it should look more something like this:
  • 16 years of education.
  • 12 years of work.
  • 3 years of education.
  • 12 years of work.
  • 70 years of retirement.
With the increasing automation, we may need less human work, we may afford to work for only a short span of our lives, and we may only need to reinvent ourselves once. Probably this would be the best option, provided that it’s economically feasible.

No Matter How Good You Are, You Can’t Keep Up With the Insane Competition

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Of course, I am making a lot of assumptions. It’s still possible that the job market will remain unchanged for a long period, even if I personally think it’s unlikely.
But even in that case, I argue that specialization is a bad idea. Sooner or later, the insane competition will drive you crazy.
Competition is good because it motivates us to get better. But when there is too much competition, most people just won’t make it. Since we need our jobs to survive, we are forced to explore other ways to get ahead of the competition.
As an entrepreneur and an academic, I have noticed how easily people compromise their values because they are forced to get ahead of others fast.
In the entrepreneurial world, you need to do anything to become profitable as soon as possible. I have already talked about this in another story. In the academic world, you need to publish as many papers as possible and get as many citations as possible from other papers.
I often joke that academia is the biggest pyramid scheme ever existed. There are several metrics to measure the performance of a researcher, one of the most popular ones is the h-index. The h-index is a function of the number of papers published by an author and the number of citations they got. You can measure the value of a paper by the number of citations it gets from other papers. A new paper with no citations has no value. It has been written with the expectation that future papers will cite it. But these future papers will be in the same situation. See how this is a pyramid scheme?
This may just be a joke, but the sad reality is that, because of this scheme, there are many shitty papers. Authors will do anything to increase their h-index, from limiting the validity of their results to very specific conditions, to falsifying them and hope that peers won’t try to replicate them (it actually happens).
It’s not that academics are born cheaters, it’s just how a very competitive world works. You can either stay true to your values and most likely fail, or cheat your way up to survive. On the top, you will find mostly cheaters, because non-cheaters didn’t make it. Now, you may be asking, which one am I? An honorable failure, or a surviving cheater? Well, I prefer not to answer that…
Why am I saying all this? The point is that, no matter how great you actually are, you will eventually have to compete with cheaters. Top academics cheat by falsifying results. Top entrepreneurs cheat by making morally questionable decisions. Top athletes cheat by doping. Top politicians cheat by paying for targeted advertising to voters who had their privacy violated on Facebook to build psychographic profiles.
But even if you manage to become the very best, it will be hard to remain the best. Your expertise will gradually fade as you get older. You can’t be number one forever.
This description of a world in which being the best is not worth it, and the very best ones are usually cheaters, may seem very depressing. But it doesn't have to be. Instead of using your skills to become the best at one thing, try to create something extraordinary by being good at many things.

Don’t Be The Best At One Thing, Be Good At Many Things

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Many people will tell you that, in order to succeed, you need to focus on one thing. In this story, I argued that the opposite is true for the youngest generations.
In the following years and decades, we will need to find solutions to the most challenging problems, like climate change.
Problems like climate change won’t be solved only by climate scientists. We will need a coordinated effort from scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, politicians, sociologists, inventors, engineers. But most of all, we will need people who cover more than one of these roles, because they can understand and put together different perspectives at the same time.
We needed expertise before, now we need creativity. The simplest definition of creativity is creating something new from two or more existing ideas. How can you find two or more different ideas if you are only good at one thing, no matter how good you are?
I’m not saying that you shouldn't specialize at all. Being an academic, I’m very specialized in what I do. There should be one thing in which you are slightly better, because that’s still needed in today’s job market. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the one thing you are specialized in. And you shouldn’t care about being the best. You should strive to get good at many things, so that you can find ideas that most people can’t.
I am becoming passionate about many things. I read many books about different subjects. If you follow me on Medium, you may have noticed that I have written about very different topics.
I also try to seek different opportunities as a writer, a developer, an entrepreneur, and an academic. I don’t claim to be great at any of these things (I write like shit, I never finish side projects, I failed a company, and I have published less than I would admit), but I’m good enough to cover a role in each of these fields.
I think that you should do the same. You and I, in the coming years, will need to find creative solutions to very important issues.