🌀 How to win in the new economy

why expert generalists are uniquely positioned to succeed in this era

Hi folks! Today’s essay will explore:

  • why the Adapative Economy is something everyone should pay attention to today

  • how to win in this new economy

  • the most important skills to develop over the next 10 years

  • why expert generalists are uniquely positioned to succeed in this era

I welcome you to screenshot your fave bits & share them on LinkedIn (tag @generalistworld so I can say hi!)

As always, can’t wait to hear what you think,

There’s a phenomenon that’s staring you in the face; it’ll determine your wealth, it’ll shape your quality of life, and it’ll make a deep dent in how you work for the next 20+ years—and nobody’s talking about it.

📈 How to win in the new economy

Over the past 150 years, our experience of the world has undergone a seismic shift. Think back to when you got your first cell phone. It wasn’t that long ago, right? Remember TV’s with chunky behinds? When digital cameras where mind-blowing? The singsong of dial-up internet? Heck, I remember being floored by my Tamagotchi! All of these advancements happened in the past two decades alone.

Here’s a thought experiment for you.

Think back to a time we all remember all too well—Covid. In 2020, AI existed for most of us in sci-fi books. It was a thing we’d heard of, we could imagine it, but we hadn’t played with it ourselves. It was abstract. Sure, it existed, but not used by the general public, and certainly not to the capability of GPT-4o.

Because of AI, we now live in a time where access to infinite knowledge is faster, cheaper, more globally accessible, and getting smarter every single second. By the time you finish reading this sentence, AI has improved. And now? It’s improved again.

And why this matters to you can be summed up by the most important words and urgent words of this essay so far: infinite knowledge.

AI is improving at a rate that our not-so-long-ago-chimp-brains cannot compete with. Not in a hundred lifetimes.

So, what comes next?

I was 900m up a mountain when it hit me. We’re not just in the midst of technological leaps. We’re not just experiencing a mere bump in the road of how we approach education and careers.

We’re entering a new economy. One that nobody is talking about, and very few are prepared for. In this essay, I’ll break down my working theory of ‘the new economy’, and explore the 3 ways you can win in this era.

A timeline of economies (& how you win)

1. The Industrial Economy

You win when you fit into the system

The opportunity to commercially trade beyond your close vicinity meant a surge in demand for people who could meet production quotas. This era was defined by being a cog in the wheel — doing repetitive manual tasks to service a bigger machine.

This was the era of the packing line and the rise of the manager. Much like an engineer would be responsible for keeping a machine going today, managers were responsible for keeping the assembly line churning efficiently.

In the Industrial Economy, you won by fitting in.

The vast majority fit into the ‘cog in the wheel’ eg: factory workers, which kept food on the table. The people who won financially figured out that you don’t want to be doing the work, you want to be overseeing the work.

This was a time when education mattered less, and prosperity for most was pretty bleak.

2. The Knowledge Economy

The more you know, the more you win

As technology entered its teenage years, humans realized, ‘hey, maybe we can get machines to do all this manual labour?' But then they asked, ‘okay but how will we spend our days?’ (note: does this question sound familiar? I think it’s one that we’re re-asking right now…)

This was the era of knowledge. The prestige of a ‘good’ education from a ‘good’ school. The ability to exercise our intelligence by having discipline-specific learning. The deeper you went? The more you were rewarded. For the past ~70 years, our world has been built and shaped by specialists.

The path has been clear: go to school, get good grades, pick a subject, study it at university to a point where you intellectually max out, for the love of all things good do not change your mind(!!) because you’ve just spent 10 years studying this thing, find a job in that discipline, and climb that linear career ladder for the next 50 years until you retire. There’s also something about 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, but let’s stay on track….

Your leverage in this era was your ability to become an expert. Your value and success were intricately linked to how much you knew about stuff. There was a premium placed on commercial intelligence—knowledge in economics, law, and medicine—disciplines that required years, if not decades, to master.

This was often to the detriment of disciplines like art, philosophy, poetry, and music. It’s impossible to know how many gifted creatives swapped the ‘starving artist’ life for ‘corporate America’ because, well, needs must.

I would argue up until 2022, The Knowledge Economy reigned. But then the cracks began to form. We know this because 44% of jobseekers regret their choice of degree - because they don't feel prepared for the changes in the workforce and the skills required of them.

We’ve wholeheartedly rejected the ‘commitment at all costs’ mindset of building a career—about half of the U.S. workforce changes jobs every one to five years. Challenger universities like the London Interdisciplinary School are also gaining traction—where education is based around solving complex problems, rather than mastering specific disciplines.

This might be best summed up by something Becca said at our recent GW offsite: “why are we mastering trades that no longer exist?”

Furthermore, we’re now of a generation that has experienced relative peace and prosperity our entire lives. The trauma of war and famine is no longer in our recent memories (at least for those of us in the Global North).

This also affects our ‘career mindset’. We’re (very!) privileged in the sense that if you’re reading this, your needs are usually all met: you have access to abundant food, a roof over your head, safety as the default, a therapist on call, standup comedy down the road, and pilates on weekends. Relatively, by all historical measures: life is pretty darn sweet. So now this has become our expectation.

We expect work to be varied and challenging.

We expect to be respected and have rights.

We expect work to be meaningful.

Work-life balance is now just table stakes. The thought of doing miserable work for 40 hours a week for the next 50 years feels rather absurd to us.

So when you take these cultural shifts, sprinkle in rapid technological leaps, you have yourself on the brink of a new economy.

3. The Adaptive Economy

Those who learn fast, adapt, and apply expertise across domains, win.

It’s not enough to fit in, or to simply know a lot. In this new economy you win by combining 3 things:

  • Leverage

  • Learning

  • Spikiness

We quietly entered The Adaptive Economy in 2022. Here’s how I know:

So, quick math. The average half-life of skills is now less than five years. If a degree takes 4-6 years, and practical work experience takes another 4-6 years, well, the math ain’t mathing…

You’ll reach redundancy before you reach mastery.

The 3 ways in which you win in the Adaptive Economy

“The Adaptive Economy is an evolution of work whereby the most valuable skills will be leverage, learning and spikiness”

  1. Leverage

Leverage is by definition the action or advantage of using a lever’. A lever is therefore something you can pull, that will give you a distinct advantage. The most important levers over the next 20 years will be:

  • Tools—those who effectively & efficiently use technology as a tool for better work and life outcomes

  • Network—those who build strong, deep networks will be more resilient and have access to more opportunities. Verticalised, curated career communities will become as mainstream as belonging to a gym. Communities like Generalist World, the Community Collective, and Lenny’s Newsletter, become the trusted home for navigating careers.

  • Distribution—it’s never been easier to distribute & access information. The people who win in this economy will not be those with the widest distribution eg: giant influencers (because the barrier to entry is so low), but those who have the most trusted distribution.

Master any one (or a combination!) of these levers as the foundation for your spiky career.

  1. Learning

The Knowledge Economy doesn’t disappear, it just changes. Learning will remain an essential trait of successful careers, but it will look different.

Whilst we’ll still have demand for deep, decades-long specialists studying and understanding single domains, the vast majority of the workforce will need to undertake an adaptive approach. Careers will become an evolving, regenerative, life-long learning process of developing commercial competencies (I call these spikes!).

A commercial competency is simply a skill or knowledge that you can monetize. You won’t be the top 0.01%, or be world-class, but you will be good enough to a) get the job done well b) use tools to get the job done well c) have enough understanding that you can bring in the right people to get the job done well.

I think we’ll also see a sharp rise in micro-learning; shorter & more intense periods of education. The metric of an education programme’s success won’t be the length of time you study, but the speed at which you become commercially competent.

  1. Spikiness

Spiky careers are made up of intentional peaks of depth followed by slopes of application. Rather than climbing a linear career ladder with a single destination, spiky careerists spend periods (can be many years!) sharpening their depth of knowledge in a domain, discipline or role (aka: learning the thing), followed by a period of meaningful application (eg: doing the work). If this career were a shape, it might be MWMW.

Spiky careerists cross sectors, industries, domains, and roles. They are not constrained by traditional boxes. They make horizontal, vertical, and diagonal career moves. If they were a piece on a chessboard, they would be the queen. Powerful, because she knows she can move as far as necessary, in any direction.

Speaking with Ed, one of the minds behind the London Interdisciplinary School, he predicts that careers will be orientated around problems, rather then professions. Perhaps that problem is working on solving the climate crisis, or creating more equitable health outcomes of underserved folks, or increasing access to education. Whatever it may be, this becomes your ‘through-line’. Perhaps one of your spikes sees you tackle the from an analytical lens as a data engineer. And another sees you become deeply involved with research and policy. Before perhaps launching your own venture which leverages all of your past spikes to give you a unique, distinct advantage.

For example, a spiky careerist may get a PhD in Neuroscience. Then they build out their entrepreneurial spike, and launch an Edtech company. Their next spike takes them to a Product Leadership role at a healthtech company. And today they combine their love of art, neuroscience and product via a neuroaesthetics studio—applying the neuroscience of how immersive experiences impact our minds and bodies to make culture and technology work better for our wellbeing. (This person is Erica Warp and she is a shining example of a spiky careerist!)

Another example might be Robert’s path. Today, Robert is a successful Chief Innovation Officer at Brightwell, but to get here he’s built out many spikes including agency owner, executive producer, founder, facilitator and organisational designer.

I could go on and on with examples of uber-talented generalists from the Generalist World community.

The thing is, when people hear the word ‘generalist’, they assume this is the antithesis of a specialist. A polar opposite. But I believe that definition is outdated. It was Erica Warp who defined a generalist as “an expert learner, problem solver and big picture thinker who can effectively apply these strengths across varied fields and roles. They are skilled at spotting relevant patterns in complexity and are often empathetic and future-focused”.

Being a generalist is not being anti-specialist. It’s about stacking your diverse expertise in new and interesting ways.

At Generalist World, we’re building the new workforce made up of:

  • spiky careerists at the forefront of technology and change

  • spiky teams that are cohesive, move quickly, ship quality, make more money, and last.

If you’re screaming, ‘UMM FINALLY!!’, we hear you. If, like us, you identify as a generalist, you likely feel deeply frustrated, overlooked and misunderstood from years (decades?) of being pigeonholed into roles. Of your talent not being fully leveraged, and of feeling diluted.

Deep down, we all know there’s a better way. You will spend 80,000+ hours working. My 2c? What an absolute, utter, travesty it is to spend 1/3 of your incredibly short amount of time on this earth in a job that makes you miserable.

The GW team is on a mission to ban bullshit jobs. We live and breathe elevating interdisciplinary careers. We’re working with universities, companies, and spiky careerists to set you up for success in the Adaptive Economy. Keen to work with us, we’re looking for a sponsor for essays just like this! Email [email protected].

So, what comes next…

There’s a new economy, but the world of work hasn’t caught up.

Many don't know it yet, but we, the generalists, have been ready for years. We're experts in stacking diverse expertise & uniquely positioned to solve complex problems in wicked environments. Through education, events, and community, we’re building the workforce of generalist leaders that powers the new economy.

If you’re reading this, and it’s hitting home, you’re early. You’re ahead of the curve. Being early is exciting but it can also feel lonely, frustrating & kinda painful. My best advice is to surround yourself with people who get it. If you don’t know where they are, here’s 100+ to connect with 🙂 

How did you like todays edition?

Comment what you loved most/what was most useful - we 💜 feedback!

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

PS: screenshot your fave bits & share them on LinkedIn (tag @generalistworld so I can say hi!)

Join the conversation

or to participate.