As someone who has worked in recruitment for the better part of a decade, I’ve seen big changes in the way people work. But one thing has struck me in particular: the extent to which work is becoming more specialized. In three guest articles for Marginalia, I want to argue that specialization – ever-narrower specialization – is a trend that will define the future of work over the next ten years. In this first piece, I’ll talk about the events that have led us to this point.

It is not my contention that ‘specialization’ means doing the same job for the rest of your working life. The average person might need to shift careers once, twice, or even three times over the course of their lifetime to keep pace. What I’m talking about is the way work is performed at the day-to-day level, in the here and now; that the discrete tasks and parcels of work that cross a person’s desk today are more likely to ask for a very narrow and specialized set of skills than ever before.

Part of what has contributed to this is the ‘atomization’ of jobs. What this means is that jobs that were once performed end-to-end by a single person are now often being broken down into smaller pieces. Some of this work is being automated, but the bits that can’t are typically given to specialists, each assigned to a discrete task and who come together to complete the job as part of an agile team. 

Efficiency gains are one thing driving this trend, but so is the corporate world’s need for flexibility. Gigs have been part of the experience of the skilled workforce for longer than you might think, but they’re most often associated with economic downturn. In recessions, companies seek the flexibility to scale up and down by hiring through projects or short-term contracts rather than committing budget to long-term hires. 

Employment and income statistics since the 2007 financial crisis bear this out. Research shows that between 2005 and 2015, all net employment growth in the US occurred in temporary, gig and contract work. Even by conservative estimates, independent workers make up about 10% of the US population today and last year gig economy jobs accounted for $1.4 trillion in personal income.

Does this spell the end of what we’ve come to think of as ‘traditional’ work? Hardly. I’m not trying to tell you that people won’t continue to be hired in stable, long-term jobs. But more and more I do think we’ll see those jobs limited to project management-type roles for which generalists are hired, where their primary function is to coordinate the efforts of focused specialists, rather than execute themselves.

It’s definitely getting easier to find, hire and onboard specialists. Conventional economic wisdom has always dictated that it’s more efficient to keep employees in-house, tied to a single, overarching employment contract that encompasses the full breadth of their responsibilities than to have to constantly negotiate contracts for discrete services. Now though, online talent platforms like UpWork, Fiverr and Freelancer – with the power they confer to scan global talent markets at speed – have made it far more cost-effective to hire specialized talent on short-term contracts and are becoming a frequent go-to for recruiters. 

In many ways, these platforms are both a symptom and yet another cause of the specialization phenomenon. They respond to recruiters’ needs to find talent uniquely equipped to take on discrete, specialized tasks, but they also encourage workers to pigeonhole themselves as such. Technology has always had this way of forcing habits on people. 

Certainly, the database-like structure of these platforms, with ‘fields’ of talent that can be searched and interrogated in myriad ways, seem to coax participants towards more ready identification with a distinct ‘type’. Need a CRM specialist with special knowledge of Salesforce? There’s an expert for that. Want somebody with five years of experience serving healthcare clients? You won’t have to search far for the right person. Just look at LinkedIn. The platform more or less compels its users to organize themselves into these categories. We have a workforce of ‘hired guns’ on our hands, with the buckets of talent many, but ever smaller.

Changes in the way education is delivered are equally symptomatic and causal. In the last few years we’ve seen the dramatic rise of online education services like Coursera, edX, and Udacity, that teach – by comparison to traditional university degrees – extremely focused content on highly specialized topics across a range of fields. Coursera has a user base of 30 million worldwide. Today, more people subscribed to Harvard Online courses than have attended the university in person in its entire 400-year history. Such courses anticipate, but also drive demand for specialization by normalizing and helping to facilitate their students’ career development along ever-more specialized lines.

It’s a truism in business that if you’re founding a company in a crowded market, you need a unique value proposition. In the employment market of the future, the same will increasingly be the case for the worker. More than ever, it’s a case of finding what differentiates you from rivals and cultivating it, with education often the first port of call.

What do these changes mean for the way that individuals navigate the modern economy? For sure, it’s a question we’re dedicated to helping the members of our developer community at Adeva to answer. There is also plenty to ponder for institutions. How do modern corporations find the right balance between specialist and generalist talent, for instance? And how might mainstream educators such as universities keep pace with and differentiate from the new breed of online education platforms so uniquely configured to provide training for specialized vocations? In the articles that follow, I want to share at least an outline of my own thinking on these issues, as well as shed more light – through personal experience – on specialization in action today.