Later life GPG, and specialisation

Well, it’s a new year, and that has to be good news. If not, we’re in trouble….No, it’s time to be positive. Or at least persistent.

I saw a recent news item which referred to research on gender pay differences by an organisation called Rest Less. The organisation’s title sounds rather forbidding – no slacking here – but it offers advice and encouragement across a range of areas, including work, health and lifestyle. One section of the website that naturally appealed to me was on learning; it offers a good range of opportunities, for instance on courses leading to work in the field of health..

I could’t find details of the cited research on the Rest Less website, but the results quoted in the newspaper report seem to me important, if not exactly surprising: women over 50 are paid on average £8K less than men. A woman over 50 working full-time earned an average of £22,230, compared with a man’s £34,325. This kind of analysis will grow in importance as people have longer working lives, so the ‘over 50’ bracket covers two full decades.

It’s particularly relevant to the Paula Principle. I’ve always argued that we need a rethink of career models – obviously I’m very far from being the only to do this, but if we are to make sure that women’s competences can be properly valued we need models which allow both men and women to take time out, or for a while reduce their work commitment, without sacrificing their later career prospects. People recommitting to work at a later age should be able to move up and across ladders, with the diverse experience they will by then have.

Which takes me to a book I’ve just finished – Range, by David Epstein. He argues for more generalists in an age of specialisation. The book is full of nice examples of people who have refused to be corralled into narrow specialists, and made good. Mostly these are top performers, such as Dave Brubeck in Jazz, or Frances Hesselbein who did only unpaid work until well into mid-life but then eventually became CEO of the US Girl Scouts, with three million members. Yet the argument applies more generally, that over-specialisation can harm organisations as well as individuals. I recall a similar theme on organisations from Gillian Tett’s book on silos.

I buy the argument, and recommend the book as a good read. But it prompts a couple of questions which Epstein doesn’t really address. One is the question of where you draw boundaries: it’s fine to query excess specialisation, but how far do you go in encouraging people to stray into new areas. How to draw the line between fruitful generalism and wasteful dilettantism (speaking as one who has probably spent too much time in the latter category)?

The second is particularly PP-relevant. It concerns collective intelligence, about which I’ve written before. Bringing people together so that the sum of their competences add up to more than the parts is itself a particular skill – and one that women seem to possess in greater measure than men, for whatever reason. Collective intelligence is likely to grow in importance for organisational success. So maybe we should be thinking not only about the limits of specialisation as such, but about how we achieve the best blends of specialised and general competences.

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