Does the future belong to the generalists?

The traditional model of education tells us that as you progress, you narrow and specialise. But the future needs generalists too, who can connect the dots and see beyond the boundaries of specialism. So why do we still tell our children to choose one thing and do it well?
Does the future belong to the generalists?

Ft−n→tα→β=∑citfc α→β. This is an equation so complex that we couldn’t even write it properly. The formatting should be in two layers, we’re not convinced about the accuracy of those arrows, and it really is not the punchiest way to start an article, but hear us out*.

This equation appears in the abstract of an article in the scientific journal Nature, and is meant to show the process of how the flow of knowledge in particular scientific areas deepens the particular field of knowledge and then creates new ones. In this case, they are talking about physics, but it really could be anything else.

It used to all be “science” back in the days when Archimedes yelled “Eureka”, which is a specific Greek swear word, only used when your bathwater is too hot.  Then, as knowledge deepened, new doors opened and sub fields were created. 

Geology, chemistry, particle physics and botany. Knowledge deepens, then creates new fields and the process repeats itself. Though the evolution of this process itself is poorly mapped, it is still clearly recognisable in the way the mainstream education system flows. 

It is as though we take it as a given, that the higher you go in education, the more you narrow in. By the time you get to the narrowest pinpoint in your doctorate, the field is already opening up to something new. We don’t question it. You pick a thing, you get better at that thing, your thing contributes to broadening the field until it creates new fields, and the equation holds on repeat. 

Generalists connect the dots in a complex future

Now that will always have its place, and we need the niche specialists to advance knowledge and break new ground. But what about the generalists? Those who have a melting pot of experiences across multiple disciplines, cultures, challenges and skill sets? While the specialists are busy creating more and more new dots, it is the generalists that will connect them. Tomorrow’s problems are sweeping and serpentine, not niche, neat and narrow. 

A top recruiter at Google said that the skill they value most is problem solving. Not coding, and not discrete math. Before you send in your Learning Vitae, we should clarify that of course you need those tech skills too, but it is fundamentally important to recognise that problem solving came out above any role-specific skill. 

Why? Because the next problem to solve is just around the corner, and it will be one that nobody has yet seen. Those people who are siloed in one specific area or field are just not as adept at reaching transversally for insight to bring creative solutions to bear. Knowledge can be acquired, but skills and competencies need to be developed and that doesn’t happen overnight. 

The value of generalists in education and employment

People who can connect the dots will be of value to any organisation or community, because the world is not about to go easy on us after what we’ve done to it so far. People might be passionate about broader things like helping people or inspiring change and those drivers can lead to a tapestry of experiences and professions that may look “chaotic” on a traditional CV, but that is only because traditional C.V’s are yet more relics of a time already passed. 

Mainstream education does not help us reflect this either. An emphasis on knowledge rather than skills, and a very narrow focus on what a “credential” actually means. The generalists get a bad reputation, with phrases like “jack of all trades, master of none”, when that is actually something the world badly needs.

Figuring all of this out is an emerging field itself. In sport, they are trying to figure out which sports are better for a generalist approach and which best support specialists. We’re not going down that path, but what we want to say is that the narrow ideas we hold in mainstream education, and the way we praise the specialists and undervalue the generalists is in need of bold change. 

Transversal education is for the real world

Life is not one thing. When you are working out your household expenditure, you are bringing in areas of maths, nutrition, sustainability, wellbeing, and negotiation skills to justify why Netflix is an essential, but organic vegetables are not. 

A flippant example perhaps but life is rich and diverse, as are the communities that surround us, and we need the divergent thinkers that can tap those rich seams of knowledge and experience to be both fluid and functional in our approach to relationships, problems, employment and all the rest. 

At Learnlife we do not separate skills into “subjects'' because life does not, and the brain does not. We prioritise skills that will endure and serve you well, instead of filling notebooks with knowledge and facts that we have predicted will be important to you in a future that lies beyond our capacity to imagine. 

The ability to learn over the ability to memorise. The propensity to adapt rather than going into freeze mode when the world changes around you. The value of knowing what you love, who you are, and what you can do; anchors in any storm that might come your way. 

This dated view of the only way to progress through education as something like building a pyramid is something that has to change. When you are the architect of your own life, you can build any structure you like, and you don’t need the Pharaohs of mainstream education to tell you how to measure or value it. We get you, companies get you, the world needs you, and there is a place for you. 

To learn more about how we prepare learners for the future, read our past blog post.

*If you are a physicist, please don't write to us to tell us what a mess we made of this. We know, and we are already humbled by even trying to understand it.  

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