Specificity is slowly demoting all of us

I first published this on Medium because a Twitter thread got out of hand, so here’s the link to that: https://medium.com/@WheeleyMe/specificity-is-slowly-demoting-all-of-us-5797398d1f3c

That “things your industry is not ready to know” thread is pretty anxiety inducing, but I think one of things it illustrates is a pattern me and my peers have fallen into at some time or another. (I mean, other than all the rampant diversity and abuse problems.)

The system we live in requires specific roles, and to take advantage of that to make money we all specify our skill sets and backgrounds. We invest huge amounts of money and time into the thing in demand right now. College, certifications, experience building jobs, and personal projects, all take time and money up front with the promise of better roles later. Whether it’s becoming a highly sought after coding specialist, a specific sort of medical technician, or any sort of expert in a field.

STEM career paths in particular are shredding down into finer and finer paths that essentially leave a laborer with only one or two possible job titles. The only next steps for career advancement after those roles are management or consulting roles. In some ways that is a function of the field, which relies upon most employees to be reliable machines in their roles. In other ways it is the result of uneven development speeds in every aspect of a huge swath of industries we label “STEM” and shuffle every kid who’s good at math towards. However, STEM is only the most extreme example.

The best way to get a job in academia/business/non-profits/entertainment/arts is to become known for something. Fame has always been a shortcut to success, but the function of social media has made it almost essential in cutting through the noise to present yourself as a high value worker. Become a person who did some specific, well-known thing, and you’ll have removed a huge block to your own success. But then if you ever find yourself unable to do that thing, you are norked. This is also the root of the intuition that people have about “cancel culture” being a real thing. If you are unable to do the thing you are known for, your only options are basically going back to the service industry (which might as well be labeled “surplus labor pool” at this point) or doubling down on your new notoriety through apology exercises or the Dark Side. The real dynamics of this are more complicated and industry specific, but we all understand that if we are knocked from our teetering tower of skills, projects, and connections then it’s not just our reputations that will be in the alley.

Skill requirements are very high in a world where businesses can afford to hire ONE person to do a job and are given no training options. The expectation is not to work under somebody and learn the specifics of a role, it’s to arrive fully packaged and ready to operate at full service. I’ve worked in restaurants where the lowest level, customer facing role is Table Busser. The role of busser is perceived as being an unskilled, “any pair of hands” job, but in the world of fine dining is a highly physically demanding job with intense time management, customer service, and even appearance requirements. Restaurants often look specifically for people who are either more skilled than that (servers or people from other industries) to get at a bargain (we call that underemployment which is also bad for business) or to hire with the expectation that training will not be part of the process. Multiply this for any job perceived as higher value than “person who clears plates” and you have the problem that recruiters have every day. They must find someone with experience in an extremely similar role who will work cheaper than the person that vacated the role and often with no time to adjust to the specifics of it or make up for gaps in expertise.

Restaurants have one of the most stable sets of employment needs of any industry. They change at the rate of social conventions. On the other hand, STEM, academia, business, etc. etc. all change with the breezes and flurries of style and technological advancement. Entire careers can suddenly vanish from automation or a change in business margins. I’ve known people who were fired from fifteen year jobs in military contracting for simply having the wrong job title when new management is scanning the books. Their roles were no less essential, just the changing perception of the title itself is what got them laid off and unemployable since that’s where their expertise lies. Threads like the above highlight how those undercurrents of changing thought can bubble and brew for years before suddenly wiping out vast chunks of people’s lives for no other reason than their job demanded that they specialize beyond employability elsewhere.

It’s the cliche of my life that all problems end in “capitalism.” But here the problem really is rooted in the pursuit of liquid capital over long-term stability and worker health. The problem is too universal to be anything other than systemic and rooted in what many people call “financialization” and others call “management by spreadsheet.” I like to call it absentee-landlordism and then make jokes about thatched roofs, potatoes, and pitchforks.

The point of this observation is not to recommend a solution (since the solution is either mass reversion to earlier forms of socially conscious business practices or complete upending of the system)but to highlight part of the reason why everyone who isn’t already retired or independently wealthy is going to continue to slowly lose their mind and their hair.

Photo by Eli Pluma on Unsplash

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