End of the master and era of the jack?

It's been a while since I've written a reasonably large post - so here we go. It's designed squarely to stimulate thought and start a discussion so please do make full use of the comments option at the base of the post.

As a semi-followup to my post on Purpose, I want to provide a commentary on a modern trend which affects a huge number of lifestyles and professions. This trend is what I loosely describe as the 'era of the jack-of-all-trades'. It may be something you've considered a lot over the years or a new concept - either way hopefully you'll be able to contribute your own thoughts. I want to come to some sort of conclusion about what I am describing, whether it actually exists and if so, most importantly, whether it is a good or bad thing.

I am twenty-four years old and as such, I hope I have an outlook on the world which is forward-looking and positive, not harking back to better times. This is probably largely since I've only been around for a few decades but regardless, the past plays it's part in this post. It's relevant to me, and most likely you, because it affects both our working lives and our lifestyles outside of work.

I think it all began with home improvements. One day, someone was flicking through the yellow pages in search for a painter because the walls of their living room needed an update. Before picking up the phone, they thought, 'Hold on, why on Earth can't I do this myself and save myself the money and hassle of employing someone else?' In that moment, I believe a great slice of modern life changed. There have always been resourceful people and there have always been those who outsource almost every task outside of their immediate skill-set. Those with the adventurous nature would try out new things and benefit both in terms of saved money and new skills under their belt. This all sounds suspiciously like the rough basis for natural selection - those with more skills and successes are able to achieve more for less and with this resourcefulness, further themselves. This Do-It-Yourself mentality, born in the US in the 1970s, was latched onto by the big firms and in the UK B+Q and Homebase stores became giants. Everyone was their own painter, decorator, plumber, gardener and even builder. It is possible that this has always been the human 'way' and that we have re-discovered a self-sufficient way of life that had slipped away in the early decades of the 20th Century? Has the profession of 'tradesman' been a highly useful but ultimately temporary occupation?

What is for sure is that the principle has spilled over into almost every sector of business and life in general. This is where the story becomes relevant to myself and most likely you. Are there a great number of occupations which simply do not call for a 'master'? Jobs which don't require many years of dedication, refining skills and ultimately forward progress and innovation in their 'art'? This brings us to the vital point, quality. People like quality, but only when they can, or want to afford it.

At one time, only a tiny handful of people would venture into the unknown corners of the Earth, the explorers. They would spend months or years away from their homeland and very often not return at all. At one time, if you wanted a website designed, you would contact a designer. At one time, if you wanted a photographic campaign shot for your new range of products, you would call a professional photographer. They would own equipment which you wouldn't even be able to name, let alone use to good effect.

Here's a picture I took yesterday for a half-way point to the post. For those who are interested, taken with a Canon 5D Mark II, 300mm f4L IS lens, 430EXII flashgun and 8-inch mini-softbox.

Fast-forward to 2010. Everyone seems to be doing everything. Not just doing everything; they seem to be 'professionals' at everything, marketing themselves on spare weekends and holidays against those who call it their profession. Is this a natural progression from the 'global village' and mind-blowingly easy communication - super-fast travel to the other side of the world and consumer electronics that are accelerating at an astonishing rate? Or is it dangerous and the advent of the era of the jack-of-all-trades?

From my own areas of experience - the military is manned by both full-time professionals and part-time service-people. This has been the way for centuries and seems to be highly effective and sustainable. In polar travel and outdoor pursuits in general it is a different story. At every party or event I attend, I am gleefully informed about someone's Uncle Larry who has scaled Mount Everest and crossed both Poles, all within a two month period and wearing a fancy-dress elephant costume. Inaccurate and devaluing to those who commit themselves to this lifestyle full-time? Yes. (More on this here). In photography, this effect is truly massive. Every other person now owns a digital SLR camera, which can now be bought for a couple of hundred pounds. These are capable of producing images which pass technical quality control at the world's foremost photo libraries. Pro photographers who, as self-employed businesses, have always worked in an uncertain and competitive market, are in serious danger of dying out. Many picture-buyers are not interested in the benefits of hiring a pro (who should be reliable, prompt, consistently top-quality and fully insured) and instead enlist a weekend snapper, often with dire results. These are my areas of experience but I'm sure this occurs in thousands of lifestyle niches around the globe.

I think I've answered my own question in writing these paragraphs - I think that specialists are indeed being pushed aside and swamped by a tidal wave of jacks. But, and this is the most interesting part, is this good or bad? A natural consequence of globalisation or a dangerous slide into low quality and mediocrity?

I'm looking forward to your comments and discussion!

Alex Hibbert4 Comments