The era of specialization is over. The future world of work will require the same type of skills that made the Renaissance Men of old so successful.

According to a report recently published by the McKinsey Consulting Group, about half of all the activities done at work could potentially be automated with current levels of technology. And the trend is accelerating.

Robots are becoming more mainstream, machine learning is creating more and more powerful algorithms, and cars are starting to drive themselves. It will still take some time before these technologies mature, but the trend has been set.

This means that you will have to adapt.

The jobs that are at risk are not just lowly menial jobs, but also more high-level jobs like lawyers, bankers, or even journalists.

There are bots that are scanning documents and drafting contracts, algorithms that trade stocks, and even articles in newspapers generated by computer programs.

People don’t really agree on what this trend will mean for the world of work. Some are predicting massive unemployment due to technology, while others are saying that the jobs will just be shifted into other types of jobs and new ways of working will be required to get ahead.

However one thing stays constant. Since the world of work will change, you will need to adapt to it. What do you need to do in order to thrive in this brave new world?

The answer is quite simple. You just have to look back in history in order to get it.

Different skills will be needed to tackle the challenges arising from a world where artificial intelligence and robots will take over many of the things that are done by humans today. The skills and attributes that humans need for this type of world are exactly the same ones that the Renaissance Men of ancient times had.

The expert-generalist is making a comeback. There will still be a place for specialists (and some of them will be quite key), however many specialist jobs will disappear to be replaced by automation. Machines are much better at crunching big data, and doing it fast. They are also much better at routine, repetitive tasks.

People holding these types of jobs will need to look elsewhere.

What do you need to do?

In order to analyze what you need to do, let’s try to use your higher level thinking skills and one technique (going back to first principles) that you have in your mental toolset.

Going back to first principles implies starting from basic assumptions and then reasoning up from there.

One basic assumption that is made about the world of the future is that change will be rapid, new trends and ways of doing things will come and go. What does this imply?

It will no longer suffice to learn one thing and then rely on it for the rest of your life. In order to thrive in this type of world, you will need to be adaptable and constantly be learning new things.

Technology will change and that one skill could become obsolete. This will require you to be constantly educating yourself and updating your skills and knowledge.

Another basic assumption being made is that the menial, repetitive work will be automated. Many of the specialist positions will disappear. What does this imply?

This means that the type of skills that you should have are ones that add value and are inter-disciplinary.

What will rise in importance is adaptability, higher level thinking skills, making connections between disparate fields, and human skills. Systems thinkers will thrive in this type of environment.

These conclusions can be backed up by many studies that have been made on the subject. These have tried to take a peek into the future and determine which skills will be important.

The Nesta “Future of Skills” report looks at which skills are becoming more important and what types of jobs people will have in 2030.

The study concludes that:

“The future workforce will need broad-based knowledge in addition to the more specialized features that will be needed for specific occupations.”

The study team focused their study on the US and the UK and came up with a list of skills, abilities, and knowledge areas that will be very important in future jobs.

Their list for the US was topped by learning strategies and psychology.

While their UK list had judgement and decision making at the top, and in second place came the fluency of ideas.

The results of this study showed the importance of systems thinking and the ability to recognize interconnections for future jobs:

“The results point to a particularly strong relationship between higher-order cognitive skills and future occupational demand. Skills related to system thinking — the ability to recognize, understand and act on interconnections and feedback loops in sociotechnical systems — such as judgement and decision making, systems analysis and systems evaluation also feature prominently.”

The findings are in line with the conclusions of all the other studies that were done on this same subject.

The World Economic Forum study on the “Future of Jobs” states that the need for complex problem-solving skills in most jobs will grow:

“With regard to the overall scale of demand for various skills in 2020, more than one third (36%) of all jobs across all industries are expected by our respondents to require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills.”


“Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. Content skills (which include ICT literacy and active learning), cognitive abilities (such as creativity and mathematical reasoning) and process skills (such as active listening and critical thinking) will be a growing part of the core skills requirements for many industries.”

These skills are not something that will just be needed for the future, but increasingly many companies are starting to experiences shortages in these skills right now.

According to the OECD “Getting Skills Right” report the biggest shortages are found in occupations that work across multiple knowledge domains:

“The strongest shortages are found in occupations that use several different skills simultaneously, with high intensity, and across multiple knowledge areas. This evidence seems to support the hypothesis that workers with high-skills intersecting different knowledge areas are scarce in the labor market but, generally in high demand.”

Why these trends towards multi-disciplinary skills? According to a report on future challenges in the UK job market, the boundaries between disciplines are becoming increasingly blurred:

“The boundaries between disciplines, such as natural sciences and informatics, are becoming increasingly blurred. As disciplines converge, so do the technologies. For instance, an industrial robot is an example of a mechatronics system in which principles of mechanics, electronics and computing are combined. The convergence of technologies can disrupt existing business models, but also creates completely new markets and novel application fields.”

These different findings can be summarized by one sentence: In the future, multi-disciplinary skills, systems thinking, active learning, and people skills will be the primary skills needed in order to succeed in the types of jobs that will predominate in the era of automation and robots.

Workers of the future will need to be systems-thinkers, have abstract thinking skills, creativity, emotional intelligence, curiosity, adaptability, and critical thinking.

The ability to evaluate entire systems and not just their parts will keep on growing in importance. Inter-disciplinary expertise will gain prominence, as you will need to be able to recognize interconnections.

Critical thinking and problem solving skills will be necessary for most types of jobs. However, this type of problem solving will need to bring added value to whatever the machines will be doing.

One interesting fact is that with machine learning, even machines fall for cognitive biases. This means that an ability to recognize cognitive biases and lessen their impacts on decisions will be incredibly valuable. That’s why you will need to understand cognitive sciences and be able to apply them in your processes.

This also links to people skills and emotional intelligence. Machines will take care of much of the IQ type stuff, but they won’t know much about humans and what makes them tick. That’s why there will be an added emphasis on inter-personal skills (this can come from knowing about things like psychology and anthropology).

Curiosity will be an incredible asset, as it will drive people to learn continuously. Agility and adaptability to new and unforeseen situations in an ever-changing world will also be necessary.

These trends mean that the traditional ways of getting ahead will no longer suffice. For most people, the time of learning one single skill and relying on it for the rest of their life is over.

An article in Forbes on the death of the single skill quotes Dr. David Deming and his work on documenting this:

“This death of the single skill set has been documented by David Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University. Dr. Deming argues that many jobs requiring only mathematical skills have been automated, but roles which combine mathematical and interpersonal skills (such as economists, health technicians, and management analysts) will be in demand.”

This doesn’t mean that specializing in something won’t have its benefits. You will need to have deeper knowledge in some fields, but these should be complemented by a wide variety of other types of knowledge and skills.

There is often talk of a T-shaped man, one who has a wide variety of knowledge in many disciplines, and a deep knowledge in one. This is a good start, but the future might require not just deep knowledge in one discipline, but in several.

Now it seems you should be more of a comb-shaped man. One who has a wide variety of knowledge in many disciplines, but also deep knowledge in several of them.

As the Vice-President of Infosys put it in an article on the World Economic Forum website:

“As a culture, we must welcome, appreciate and reward the expert-generalist so that they begin to populate our workforce in greater numbers. These are people who study widely in many fields and then apply it to multiple expertise areas. They are highly trainable, volunteer for challenging and diverse project assignments, find connections between seemingly unrelated concepts and are curious and open to new experiences and uncharted territory. From having depth of expertise in one area, and a broad breath of knowledge – the T-shaped profile – our workforce must in future be led by these expert-generalists, who have a more comb-shaped profile – a broad interest base along with multiple expertise areas.”

This is basically a description of a Renaissance Man of long ago. Being a Renaissance Man means being anti-fragile for the future. With every change, your value will only rise.

For you this has huge implications. Luckily, you can prepare for these changes. Let’s try to explore what you need to do.

Read More:
The expert-generalist is making a comeback.


If you want to learn more, also go back to checking the studies themselves. The McKinsey studies are available here and here. A PWC report is available here. The Nesta study is here. The World Economic Forum studies are here and here. While the OECD studies are here and here. The Pew Research Center study is here. The UK government report is here. A report from CEPS is here.

If you also want to know more about the world of work and skills, the US has a O*NET classification, while the EU has the ESCO classification. More information on O*NET is here and on ESCO is here. An interesting project by the EU is a future observatory on skill demands that will be based on analysis of big data from job portals. More information on this project is here. Also check out the descriptions of the methodologies that EU countries use to anticipate future skills.

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