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A New Look At Employment

By Oliver DeMille

For decades the waves of history have moved paid work in the direction of increased specialization.

A natural result of this trend has been the rising role of experts, along with what can be called superspecialization.

As technology has kept pace with and benefitted from this development, our technological abilities have blossomed.

The specialization trend has influenced nearly every field, from medicine and academia to engineering, business, law, science, art, etc.

However, technology has reached a point where this trend is beginning to reverse. As medical doctor and bestselling thought leader Mark Hyman put it, “The doctor of the future will be a supergeneralist.” This concept applies in many fields.

Technological progress allows us to personalize the treatment, education, product design and services in most sectors of the economy—creating a unique and customized offering to each individual client.

When the expert must be able to personalize her work to each client, she is required to be both a superspecialist and a supergeneralist. Business author Harry S. Dent called this trend the emerging “customized economy.”

Some may think we are swinging away from specialization and back in the direction of generalism, but we are actually transcending both of these in an advanced synthesis of the two.

To fully personalize every diagnosis and treatment the doctor must be the supergeneralist.  And the new educator can’t rely on one field of expertise but must know many fields deeply enough to provide quality personalized mentoring for each diverse student.

In such a shift, the teacher becomes the curriculum. He meets with each student, assesses what is needed, and builds a curriculum, educational methodology and ideal learning environment, assignments and exams, projects and other learning modules best suited to the objectives of the individual student.

Then he repeats the process for every other student. This requires more than either generalization or specialized expertise can deliver alone.  In government, this shift emphasizes the power of citizens rather than political professionals.

The history of this trend looks something like this:

workers → generalists → specialists → experts → superspecialists → supergeneralists

This latest change seeks to expand one’s areas of expertise without sacrificing quality depth of understanding in any field. It attempts to add wisdom to knowledge.

Such a shift will undoubtedly have ramifications for the way paid work is structured. In eras of specialization, for example, general practice doctors funneled difficult cases to specialists. And general elementary teachers prepared students for more specialized secondary instructors who in turn sent them on to professors of a given expertise at the college level.

Graduate students further studied with teams of experts—each professor with her own superspecialization.

Through the medieval era, apprentices became journeymen and then masters of a trade by working for many years with one single master. The wealthy, not needing a trade, studied the broad realm of human classics. Typically generalists led society, specialists worked for the generalists.

Those with neither specialty nor leadership education worked for the specialists.

Over time the middle class grew in communities and nations that promoted broad general leadership education for all and specialization (both training and career) during adulthood. American society led out in this development. Eventually “broad general leadership education for all” became standardized and declined into “basic general ed.”

By the 1960s, “general” often coincided with mediocre, as grade levels, standards and bare minimums were targeted to the lowest levels of academic achievement.

It is debatable which of the following caused the other: the conveyor-belt rejection of personalized education for every student, or the replacement of broad leadership education in the great classics with a standardized system of minimum requirements.

Whichever came first, these reinforced each other and educational quality declined.

In our new global economy, the old measures of success and progress are changing. Employees without leadership and specialty skills are no longer competitive in the global market. The schools are scrambling to keep up, but big institutions find it hard to change quickly.

Today we are witnessing a difficult transition as a nation of specialized experts working in big institutions attempts to restructure our specialization-oriented academic systems, structures and personnel toward a truly broad, deep, general, personalized leadership education for every student.

The irony is rich: A nation of employee-minded specialists is trying to establish an educational system to produce a generation of entrepreneurial-thinking supergeneralist-leaders. Huge institutions that are neither nimble nor innovative are trying to establish an educational system that trains the most nimble and innovative graduates in the world economy.

The stakes are high, and so far we seem to be going about it the wrong way. We need successful entrepreneurs and leaders to train the next generation in leadership skills. How we deal with this challenge will in large part determine the future of the American economy.

Overcoming it will require thinking outside the expert box.

To get Oliver’s recent book, Freedomshift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny, go to thesocialleader.com.



Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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