The catch phrase in today’s work world is “gig economy.” A study by software company Intuit suggests that by 2020 40% of Americans will be freelancers, contractors or temp workers. That means 60% will be regular full-time employees. But a full-time job doesn’t promise anything anymore. The economy is changeable and external factors threaten job security. Whether freelancer or regular employee, many workers wonder how best to plan their career: specialize or generalize?

What is Job Specialization?

People who specialize have one skill (or a few) that they do better and faster than anyone else. In a company, the specialist becomes the go-to person for a specific area. Specialization can also mean a particular skill within an occupation. A photographer might specialize in doing only family and baby photos while staying away from weddings or modeling shoots.

Benefits of Specialization

  1. A specialist has marketable job skills that can merit employment in any number of industries. The esoteric knowledge of a specialist adds value for a company.
  2. A defined skill set increases respect among co-workers. Specialists operate in different parts of the company, which means people depend on their expertise.
  3. Job satisfaction is a byproduct of specialization. Specialist usually enjoy their work and gain satisfaction from solving problems.
  4. A specialist career frequently leads to higher earnings. Since specializing takes time (study, certification, etc.) and the positions are narrowly defined, the salaries tend to be higher.

Disadvantages of Job Specialization

  1. Doing the same work over and over can lead to boredom and burn out.
  2. With technology and innovation redefining work daily, the risk of obsolescence is high. Today’s valued skill today can quickly become tomorrow’s buggy whip.
  3. The narrow field and a specific skill set of a specialist can result in career inflexibility.
  4. Although specialists can expect better earnings, a narrowly defined job means fewer job openings.

What Is Job Generalization?

The most common definition of a generalist is, “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none.” Generalists have a broad range of skills and experience within a specific field. A marketing generalist might know something print advertizing, digital media placement, email campaigns and brand building without knowing the minutia of each.

Benefits of Generalization

  1. In a fickle workplace transferable skills are increasingly important. Managing employees, for example, is a key skill no matter what the industry.
  2. With broad understanding of a topic and transferable skills, career opportunities expand for generalists.
  3. Generalists may be better at navigating uncertainty. Research by Professor Phillip E. shows that generalists are better than experts at predicting outcomes. In an uncertain world, this may give generalists an edge.

Disadvantages of Generalization

  1. The most common criticism against generalists is they sacrifice depth for breadth. Increased complexity can mean a lack of in-depth understanding and missing vital information.
  2. Generalists, who work various positions with loosely defined responsibilities, may find job security iffy.

Generalist v. Specialist, Which Is Best?

There is no right answer for which to choose. Career goals play a role. Specialists often become high-level consultants, giving them a degree of autonomy. For those wanting to move up the corporate ladder, a generalized skill set serves executives who must have knowledge in many areas.