Death of The Specialist
Because I’ve written for some well-known publications, I often get PR pitches to cover new products or research. In the past couple years since having my son, I’ve been writing more frequently about motherhood and, thusly, receiving emails shoving random baby gear down my inbox. However, I recently received one that piqued my interest. It wasn’t selling anything but interesting data and, shockingly, it had nothing to do with being a parent. It was all about millennial work habits. Ah! My pre-baby, Tumblr-era topic of choice!
I had to bite. So, here I am, promoting this PR-driven data dump from CareerBuilders to explain a thought I’ve had for a while. Here was the email intro:
Skinny jeans! Lattes! Youth! Let’s make sure someone is to blame here! I already knew this was off to a weird start.
Firstly, they spelled Millennials wrong in this graphic. So like, I don’t even know why I’m giving the data this much thought, but let’s go with it. It at least sparks a good conversation. Secondly, there is minimal disparity between Millennials and Gen Z, namely because the latter has barely been in the workforce for longer than 2 years, 3 months. So, let’s look at the top three generations.
To speak for myself, this checks out. The longest I’ve stayed at a company (a really great one) was 3 years and 2 months, but that really isn’t my average and, to be fair, I held about three different roles in the organization. For the most part, my current resume looks like a kernel of corn in a microwave popcorn bag, bopping all over the damn place. It’s simultaneously a major point of pride and embarrassment.
Why can’t I stay tied down to one place for very long? Am I flighty? Noncommittal? Lack of loyalty? I don’t think so. It’s kind of all the usual reasons pinned on the millennial workforce. At various points I’ve been undervalued, overworked, underpaid, and overlooked. There hasn’t always been much of an investment in me, so I see no reason to reciprocate and find it easy to detach and jump ship for a seemingly better opportunity –– because historically, as someone with the privilege of a college education, I can. Like most millennials, I don’t buy the rhetoric that just because senior generations had to suffer through inequity, doesn’t mean I have to muscle through it too. I’ll just leave and find another job. Or, I’ll make my own.
Companies don’t generally have a great record for treating their employees well, let alone their junior to mid-level positions, which is where I sat for a good chunk of my career so far before graduating into more senior roles. But, we know this. There have been plenty of think pieces, exposés, and listicle rants preaching this gospel. I don’t need to tell you what you already wish you didn’t know.
I think there is something else at play to this growing trend that I’ve never seen discussed –– the slow death of the specialist.
Millennials are a generation of restless, unfulfilled generalists. How did this happen? I’m no expert on anything but my own experience, but here’s my best guess.
Remember The Recession?
This graphic objectively sucks, but let’s use it as a talking point. Can we pay a little more attention to the last section for each? Let’s look at what all four of these generations have “lived through.” One of these things isn’t like the others, is it? The moon landing, MTV, technological advancements, THE GREAT RECESSION AND 9/11 ATTACKS. Granted, every generation experiences upheaval, but none encountered quite as many that specifically negatively impacted the job market and an entire generation’s career trajectory more than Millennials.
Y’all are lucky you’re getting nearly three years out of us. We’re traumatized as hell! Now we have to add a pandemic to the laundry list of severe career setbacks.
Like I said, I want to focus on The Recession call out in particular. Now that it is well over a decade in the rearview mirror, most people don’t give it much thought anymore. We have more pressing things permeating our brains; I get it. But, as someone who graduated from college in 2007, I still think about it, and its effects, A LOT.
We tend to remember how hard it was to get a job during that time, but don’t often consider the long-term effects. For me, it was almost like I was held back a few grades, having to take almost two years off of my career to assume odd jobs and unpaid internships. And, it’s been shown that recent grads during that time entered the job force at much lower wages and salaries, which set us up for less overall income over our entire lifetime. Not finding work for such a prolonged period of time deteriorated my confidence and self-worth for quite a while, but also taught me that I can survive without a traditional 9-5 corporate job. I suppose that experience has led me to be able to say “fuck you” and quit a little easier. When you’ve hit bottom and had to sit there for a while, there’s not much to be scared of losing anymore. Perhaps this same empowerment is at play for the many other Millennials currently leaving the workforce in “droves.” I put this in quotes because I know many more Millennials looking for work than leaving it on the table.
The Rise of The Generalist
When the Recession hit, companies could only afford to operate on a fraction of their former staff, which forced the remaining employees to take on the workload, skills and expertise of more than one job. Where there used to be five different specialists on a team, there was now maybe one or two people in their place. Recent graduates scrambled to position themselves as unicorns, multi-hyphenates, and hustlers who could learn any and all skills just to get hired. Then once on the job, they were made to bear the workload of too many people with formerly specialized roles. And at a paltry rate.
Even once the Recession subsided and the economy stabilized, job positions and employee expectations never shifted back. Why would employers ever go back to paying for more salaries and benefits when they had created a workforce that did triple the jobs for less pay? And, we Millennials never complained much because we had become grateful for jobs and, truthfully, didn’t know anything different. We’d come of professional age during a really weird, stressed out time.
I still routinely find job postings with a comical list of daily responsibilities and desired skills –– literally detailing the work and expertise of three separate people. Oh, and then it’s labeled as “entry level.” I constantly click on “Copywriter” positions that showcase a laundry list of responsibilities that far exceed the norm. Hiring managers don’t just want someone to write great copy, they want someone who can guide SEO strategy, concept visual content, editorial direct a blog, analyze advertising metrics, mentor other copywriters, be client facing …
Clearly millennial burnout, and the subsequent “quitting spree” is a direct result of this pressure for employees to be too many things too much of the time. But I also see how completely unfulfilling being a lifelong generalist can be, and why that would lead to high turnover. It’s hard to be an account manager, project manager, strategist, and people manager who can also navigate Adobe Suite in a pinch. Being responsible for event production, fundraising, marketing, and the ever ubiquitous Millennial responsibility of social media management is what has been demanded of one person, when it should be three.
When you’re expected to do everything, how can you ever do anything really well? If you spend 2 years and 9 months at a company only reaching 50% on five different skill sets, of course you’re going to feel restless, directionless, and like you haven’t accomplished much –– no matter how many positive annual reviews and Slack channel shoutouts you get. You might wonder, “Why am I still here? The needle hasn’t moved. I’m right where I started almost three years ago.” You might even start to look for another job where you can grow –– or make more money.
But where do you go when you’ve been saddled with an obscure title created specifically to satisfy the disparate demands of that particular role? This rise of the generalist has led to a new crop of positions and subsequent inflated titles that are either too specific or too vague. They’ve been created in an effort to adequately encompass a catch all for bloated responsibilities, and create a sense of importance or creativity as thinly veiled promotions without the compensation. It’s also a way to sneakily add even more tasks to the job. Case and point, my second job out of college held the title, “Marketing and Online Development Coordinator.” I watched Hulu all day because I had zero direction and was too junior to really be very proactive.
Working in advertising, I see a lot of “Creative Producers” and “Integrated Marketing and Synergy Managers.” Both of which could define wildly different jobs and skills sets depending on the role and the company. These convoluted titles sound good on paper but aren’t actually that transferrable when you’re comparing apples and oranges, and ultimately do the employee a disservice.
I’ve been both a generalist and a specialist and, personally, while I enjoy aspects of both, being a specialist is far more rewarding overall. At some point in my late twenties, I was working as a copywriter at a creative agency and, as one of the only people in my position, I organically started to carve out my role as a specialist. Sure, I had a high volume of work, but it was all generally the same type of work, which allowed me to become very good and very fast. I distinctly remember a coworker complimenting, “You’re so good at this.” My reply was, “It’s because I’m allowed to just do this.” Having the space to focus on honing a specific set of skills felt fulfilling –– building my confidence from a healthy internal place. I stayed at that company for a long time, and only left because they had been bought and the environment changed.
My husband is currently working with a well-known, established brand. He’s been pleasantly surprised at how nice it is working with their team, which is composed of generally older (probably Gen X) employees who have remained at the company for multiple years, and even decades in some cases. He’s continually impressed with their specific knowledge, what they can bring to the table individually, and their passion for the brand. It could be said that they are specialists that are permitted to stay in and own their lane and fully own it.
Is this a benefit of seniority? Do you need to stay somewhere for years and years to earn the right to become really good at just a few things and then be empowered to lead in those areas, instead of being pressured to excel in too many disparate skills? My husband’s anecdotal experience could be an isolated incident and the result of a very good corporate culture (an exception to the rule), or maybe Millennials aren’t staying anywhere long enough to reach this professional pinnacle. But also, why should we have to put in ten years of this nonsense to earn the ability to be treated well, empowered to exceed in one or two areas, and feel fulfilled at work?
Where Do We Go From Here?
I think it would take a lot of work to undo the past 15 years or so, but not impossible. However, this year’s mass exodus of younger employees from the workforce has made it clear that they don’t want whatever HR departments and hiring managers are selling anymore. Though, as I read these headlines about labor shortages and “The Great Resignation,” I feel a bit of cognitive dissonance. As I mentioned before, everyone I know is desperately trying to get a job, let alone be called in for an interview, which somehow seems impossible to do right now despite how much employers are whining about not being able to recruit talent. Much of this is likely due to recruiting and hiring software bots that do a pretty shit job at vetting applications. Maybe … we use humans again?
Yet, the data shows that it’s mid-level career professionals ages 30-45 leaving the workforce. Most of these people are falling out of healthcare and tech, which are always demanding industries, but faced even more pressure and burnout during the pandemic. It makes sense, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
As I squarely fit into this age range with a toddler and an impending newborn, I suspect many of these resignations (probably mothers) are due to a lack of affordable childcare. Burnout is also definitely real, and I think the pandemic dramatically ripped down the curtain to reveal that the grind was really oppressive on very little grounds. People don’t want to dedicate 40-60 hours a week to companies that do not value their work, or life outside of it. They’re looking for a better way.
Many of the recent articles I’ve read encourage companies to bolster retention with a greater focus on benefits, wellness, paid leave, and remote flexibility. All good changes (if they can actually happen), but if this new factor I’ve introduced, my theory on generalist versus specialization, is somewhat correct, then there are other ways companies can re-engage Millennials.
Hire More People
Hire the correct number of people to do the work that needs to get done in a reasonable amount of time. No more stacking roles and responsibilities onto one position. It’s more of an investment up front, but will pay dividends in employee retention. You invest in people; they invest in you. That’s finance! (Full disclosure: I got a C in Finance in college.)
Award Promotions Appropriately
I’m not sure if it’s because Millennials became known as the generation who required an award just for participating, but I find that our restlessness at work is often placated with a promotion panacea. This rarely comes with much, if any, compensation outside the shiny title bump, but rather cloaks extra work for less money with the illusion of power. Reduced morale? Let’s make you a Director! You’re about to quit? How about a direct report to manage? More responsibility is more (*perceived) power, and isn’t that what you were craving?
Usually, not. This only leads to more work, pressure, and burnout and less room to hone any real skills. Promotions don’t always need a new title, and when they do, make sure they’re reflective of the role, and mindful of how it will set that person up for success in the future, whether they remain with you or not.
Allow People to Get Good At Their Job
It’s impossible to ever become truly good at your job when it is made up of too many other jobs. This a major contributor to employees feeling undervalued –– it’s not just being underpaid! Forcing employees into a generalist role often isn’t to reward broad and strategic insight, but rather an indication that there is a need for bodies to be doing work –– without having to make a commitment as to what that work might be yet.
Take the time to help employees explore, identify their “thing,” and make space for them to learn, practice, and get better at it by not letting them get bogged down by fire drills, unrealistic timelines, and displaced work. Sometimes this might mean them shifting into an entirely different department or area of focus, and that space needs to be available. Wouldn’t you rather put an employee in a different role than they were hired where they excel, rather than hold them back in a position they’ll surely quit?
This also requires employers to create safe environments where people can bring their whole selves to work every day. When employees can feel free to be themselves, or bring their outside passions and interests to the job, their work can be positively influenced and focused in ways that far exceed the initial job description.
Support and Invest In Training
In my experience, much internal training offered is still pretty general. It usually pertains to soft skills and management approaches, and getting any company to pay for more specialized training like graphic design, project management, writing, or video editing, elsewhere is a joke. Employers need to start committing to helping foot the bill for employees to take classes, earn degrees, and participate in other extended professional opportunities like conferences and workshops.
It doesn’t always need to be a monetary investment, time and space work too. I’ve seen, firsthand, how companies can do this through peer education and mentorship. At one creative agency where I worked, there were lunch and learns where employees would take turns with the spotlight to share knowledge on the professional topic of their choice. These things not only help promote greater specialization and job fulfillment, but organically contribute to a supportive corporate culture and greater retention.
Ok, I’m getting the red light, which means I need to wrap up my time on this soapbox. Why are Millennials leaving the workplace in high volumes? There isn’t just one factor; there are several –– most of which stem from glaring systemic organizational failures to support employees appropriately. But, I do hope that we can recognize that creating a workforce of mostly generalists is a contributor and isn’t sustainable. And, not to say that we need to do away with generalists completely! They offer a broad perspective and can connect dots that specialists often aren’t able to see. What I’m calling for is a recalibration because we’ve leaned way too far to one side and it’s not working for organization productivity or personal career satisfaction.
And, one final thought –– looking at the trend in decreased average amount of time spent at a job, maybe it’s time to finally break the archaic expectation (and judgement) that employees should dedicate any more than 2-3 years to any one job. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that having the same people in the same roles for long periods of time doesn’t always equate to stability and expertise. It can also produce stagnation and waning morale, which almost always affects the bottom line. It’s an interesting idea to consider what encouraging employee turnover would mean by embracing the flexibility, diversity in thinking, and innovation opportunity that could bring to an organization.