The Death of the Generalist

Two weeks after we moved into our new house, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, the man at the other end informed that he had been the landscaper for the previous owners, and would I like to continue their exact same service of lawn care and hedge and tree maintenance? I quickly said no. After thinking for a second longer, I was able to ask him, since they had been doing hedge and tree maintenance, how long the tree in the front yard had been dead? Of course, he didn’t know. But he would be happy to give me the name of somebody he trusted in the area of tree removal.

Yes, yes, I’m sure he would have.

I have to admit, I was momentarily flabbergasted at the idea that our yard, which is pretty teeny-tiny and has a grand total of one (very dead) tree and about 10 bushes would need a professional landscaper. We have a lawnmower, and while I happily call that the “man’s domain,” I had spent the past 8 years learning all about hedge and garden maintenance in our previous house. (Now—don’t read this post and come drive by our house—those hedges are on my to-do list, I promise.) But I have since come to see this little interaction with a faceless voice as a very interesting snapshot of the death of the generalist.

Women have been joining the workforce in ever-increasing numbers since the 60s. In order to do that, they must become specialists in one area or another. One has to become a master of insurance billing to get an administrative position at a doctor’s office, or get a certificate in early elementary education to teach 1st graders, or get a physician’s license to tell parents their child isn’t eating healthfully. All of this specialization means that we have not dedicated time to learning the tasks that our grandmothers knew how to do. Instead, we hire out many of the things that they were old hats at: they had herbal remedies for the cure of warts, they knew how to cook a healthy meal, they knew how to trim hedges, and they knew how to spring clean their houses.

For me, this hits right at the heart of the Chesterton quote I talked about last week. I get to be the grand generalist for our family. In the 11 years we’ve been married, I have learned how to cook (boy, that first summer was exciting!), how to quilt, how to knit, how to paint walls, how to plant lettuce, how to transplant hostas, and how to reupholster furniture. I have researched vaccines, healthy eating, homeschooling theories, and, most recently, a rare medical condition. My continuing education has been broad. While I do not have a degree in any of these areas, I have enough knowledge to benefit my family. And how I have loved doing it! When I get tired of quilting, it’s fun to move on to the next project. I have the benefit of being the ultimate generalist: life is never boring, and I get to follow my passions and whimsies to see them benefit my family.

Often, well-meaning members of our parent’s generation will express concern at the inability of a homemaker to get a “real” job, should she need to. It is true—if my husband were to die unexpectedly, I would not be able to get a job. I have no “useful” skill, no degree to match that skill with, and absolutely no experience in the work force in the last decade. But why should this by an area outside of faith for me? God has told me that he numbers the hairs on my head, that He cares for even the littlest sparrow, and that He is my stronghold. As I trust Him for daily sanity, I will trust Him for provision. This is an area where faith becomes practical in a powerful way: if I can trust God to protect me, I can choose to let my husband provide for our family, and choose to be the keeper of our home, as He has commanded me to be. I can continue to enjoy being a generalist whose only limits are those of my imagination.

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6 Responses to The Death of the Generalist

  1. Dani says:

    Anna, this is such a helpful post! The specialist mindset often keeps me from trying new things. I think that if if I’m going to invest time and/or money into something, I need to become an expert. If I instead consider myself a generalist, I’ll be free to learn bits and pieces and not feel guilt when I put one skill down in order to learn another.

  2. Rachel Parks says:

    Great post! I love being a generalist. For me motivation comes only from an area of need. I’m only creative when problem solving. And I’d get bored of doing just one specialized thing all the time.

  3. Colene says:

    Being a generalist can actually be a marketable skill. My company likes hiring moms that are reentering the work force after their children are grown. We are typically unflappable, willing and able to figure things out on our own, resourceful, frugal in a good way, and focused. 🙂

  4. Thanks again for this- it really gave me some great perspective this week at home with kids.
    I shared with my readers today, here-

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