Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

The Gig Economy: Hope for Renaissance Men and Women?

English: Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. R...

Stories of young adults facing the realities of advancing in today’s work world (like this one here) bring to mind one of the worst aspects of working in the silos of the Industrial Age. Those of us who want to make a living off of our desire to excel in multiple fields are constantly reminded that having anything more than a monotonous list of the same roles on our résumé or LinkedIn profile page is the “kiss of death.” Yet, those of us who count ourselves as polymaths have experienced how expertise in one field, through providing a fresh perspective and broadened understanding, enables us to make valuable contributions to work in another. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where we can point to our multifaceted experiences, flexible minds, and insatiable curiosity as advantages and be taken seriously?

With the advent of the gig economy, opportunities for Renaissance men and women arise. There are indications that there will be demand for our intangible skills and abilities (as described here and here). Quoting blogger Jo Hart:

My perception is that it is now more acceptable to be a polymath than it has been for many years… The first instant thought was that this is a result of the exponential growth of easily available information through Internet publishing and increased access. In my opinion the skills of a generalist and synthesist (often held by polymaths) are better suited to a burgeoning information situation than are those of a specialist. There is also the additional point that, with increased access to information, specialists are no longer the exclusive curators of detailed knowledge and information. Perhaps this is why (in my opinion) polymathy (and respect for it) is on the rise. However it may just be the usual cyclic nature of change – there have been other times when polymathy was common. Both the Renaissance period and the late 19thCentury stand out in the number of polymaths who were high achievers in more than one field.

I also agree with Larry Dignan:

Robert Half is right that specialists are in demand. The catch is workers need to know when to jump off that horse and onto another one. There’s an education gap for specialized skills, but if you focus too much on a specialty, you risk not being able to jump ship when the economy demands it. Just knowing when to swap specialties will require a more general education as well as a business sixth sense. In other words, some specialists will be automated out of the work force. A person more akin to a polymath will have a more diversified career path.

So, as illustrated here, perhaps there will be need for both mono-maths and polymaths for a time. What are your thoughts?

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2 responses to “The Gig Economy: Hope for Renaissance Men and Women?

  1. Mike September 3, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Great points. I’m glad to see you write about this. The trend toward a high degree of specialization is disconcerting for those of us who think a broad education is essential.

    • Lynn Patra September 3, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      Yes, people are also starting to realize how much specialization contributes to the group-think that happens in disciplines where academics don’t interact with or solicit the feedback of peers from other disciplines. For example, I’ve noticed a strong divide between social sciences and hard sciences. Now that I’m looking into genetic contributions to personality and behavior, I’ve drawn some gasps from some of my peers. However, my attitude is, if it’s a part of the issues then you have to look into it!

      On a personal note, I wish I could combine the time I spent in law school and in a Ph.D. program and call that a degree… Haha! 😛

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