The Cost of Millennial Specialization

I forgot how much fun writing is. More importantly, I forgot how hard it was. From technical courses in school and college to working in consulting with lots of “numbers”, from majoring in Economics to working as a product manager at a tech startup (occasionally committing code), I understand the struggle of getting the data or the equations or the software right. But writing is much harder than all of that. Writing takes art from code, structure from equations, but data from one’s personal experiences, the world around them, circumstance, emotion, the conscious, the subconscious, and everything in between.

With software, we want an elegant solution, but there is a known, consumer-facing end, where product requirements dictate the preset outcome. With writing, the journey affects the end result. More often than not, the process of writing can transform the end result.

Numbers can only be combined in so many ways to come up with solutions and inherently contain certain rules which add limits, but writing starts with a blank slate — with no rules in governance. Writing reminds me of doing research, but the information isn’t trapped in randomized controlled trials or government databases, but rather between the two ears of the writer.

Most of the people my age that I know are highly effective individuals. They have important jobs. They’ve studied complex things from brand-name places. They maintain complex interpersonal relationships with friends, family members, and coworkers. They’re going to be successful.

But there is still something missing. I have an overwhelming and recurring sense that our generation’s general awareness about the world is subpar. We’re declining generation-over-generation. I realize this is a very broad statement, but I don’t think it’s wrong. In the world of Snapchat and iMessage, maybe, just maybe, my generation has mortgaged the ability to be well-rounded AND communicate well?

In fact, I notice great writing from contemporaries of mine now solely because it’s the exception, and not the rule. This got me thinking — have we gotten worse as a generation at writing? Is that an example of a decline in well-roundedness? What else are we worse at than our predecessors?

I posit that in striving to become hyper-specialized in our respective fields, we’ve left behind skills related to being complete individuals. I can’t speak to quantitative data that proves my point (does it exist?), but anecdotally, we speak fewer languages than our parents and grandparents. This, in my experience, again, is true for Caucasians, Asian-Americans, Latinos, etc. and immigrants or native-born friends of mine.

In adapting to an American culture and a capitalistic society that values economic rent, we forgot that specialization has a cost, too. As we’re in a sprint to get to where we think we need to be, we’re sacrificing knowledge, experience, laughter, thought, criticism, and arguments in fields that don’t correlate directly to our expected value of earnings and income in our primary field.

Now, I know generations before us have specialized as well. We had blacksmiths and engineers and jewelers and politicians before us — we’ve had them for a while. But maybe they weren’t as aware of the hyper-benefits of specialization, or somehow managed to do more in the same amount of limited time as the current generation. I don’t quite know the answer, but something seems off…beyond writing and languages.

We’re not as independent. We’re not as good at taking care of our own finances. We haven’t struggled early enough with being on our own and the fear that comes with. The Great Recession and success of the Boomer generation has certainly contributed; we’re league leaders in all sorts of statistics related to moving back home, dependence on parents, etc. We struggle to balance culture and family with work and friends. Those trade-offs don’t seem obvious to us. When do we choose what?

I also know when I look around I see the most educated, healthy, and optimistic generation in human history, but also the least well-rounded. Call me a critic or a pessimist, but are there costs to the new communication era and specialization in our education and our economy? And are we ignoring them more so than previous generations did, consciously or otherwise?