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Division of labour

Division of labour or specialization is the specialization of cooperative labour in specific, circumscribed tasks and roles, intended to increase the productivity of labour. Historically the growth of a more and more complex division of labour is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialisation processes. Later, the division of labour reached the level of a scientifically-based management practice with the time and motion studies associated with Taylorism.

Trade and Economic Interdependence

The division of labor makes trade necessary and is the source of economic interdependence.

Global division of labour

There exist as yet few comprehensive studies of the global division of labour (an intellectual challenge for researchers), although the ILO and national statistical offices can provide plenty data on request for those game to try.

In one study, Deon Filmer estimated that 2,474 million people participated in the global non-domestic labour force in the mid-1990s. Of these,

  • around 15%, or 379 million people, worked in industry,
  • a third, or 800 million worked in services, and
  • over 40%, or 1,074 million, in agriculture.

The majority of workers in industry and services were wage & salary earners - 58 percent of the industrial workforce and 65 percent of the services workforce. But a big portion were self-employed or involved in family labour. Filmer suggests the total of employees worldwide in the 1990s was about 880 million, compared with around a billion working on own account on the land (mainly peasants), and some 480 million working on own account in industry and services.

Types of Specialization

Geographical Specialization: land use is naturally suited to specific situation.

Labour Specialization: achieved when the population process is broken into tiny tasks. The idea is referred to as the division of labour.


The productivity gains of the division of labor are important within any type of production process, ranging from pin manufacture to software production to legal practice and medical care. The productivity gains are a result of a number of mechanisms, as follows:

  1. Frees workers to focus on tasks that they are best at
  2. Learning Curve efficiencies (see Experience_curve_effects for exact definition)
    • More repetitions leads into learning faster ways to perform the task, causing
      • More efficient in terms of time, which is equal to
      • Increases productivity because training time is reduced and the worker is productive in a short amount of time.
      • Concentration on one repetitive task makes workers more skilled at performing that task.
    • Might also cause Steepening of the Learning Curve
      • Reduces the time needed for training because the task is simplified
      • Increase in meta-capabilities like ability to learn further new tasks
  3. Little time is spent moving between tasks so overall time wasted is reduced.
  4. The overall quality of the product will increasingly bring welfare gains to the consumer
  5. It becomes possible to influence how production takes place


  1. Disconnection from effects of actions -- the worker may not feel responsible for the end result of the process in which he/she contributes to.
  2. Lack of motivation: the quality of labour may decrease while absenteeism may rise.
  3. Repetitive motion disorder: can be a factor in many manual jobs.
  4. Growing dependency: a break in production may cause problems to the entire process.
  5. Loss of flexibility: workers may have limited knowledge while not many jobs opportunities are available.
  6. Higher start-up costs: high initial costs necessary to buy the specialist machinery lead to a higher break-even point.

Threats to the Division of Labor

Trade barriers

Some legislation is specifically aimed at reducing trade.

Effects of Income Taxation on Division of Labor

If a tax is paid on outsourced services that is not also charged on services performed for oneself, then it may be cheaper to perform the services oneself than to pay someone else. Even considering losses in economic efficiency.

For example, suppose jobs A and B are both valued at $1 on the market. And suppose that because of your unique abilities, you can do job A twice over (100% extra output) in the same effort as it would take you to do job B. But job B is the one that you need done right now. Under perfect division of labor, you would do job A and somebody else would do job B. Your unique abilities would always be rewarded.

But now consider your choices when the total marginal tax rate (over all levels of government) is 50%. You are trying to decide whether to do job A twice over or to do job B. First, suppose you do job A twice over, for $2. Your $2 is taxed at 50%, so you end up with $1 which is just enough to pay somebody else to do job B. So there is no reward for doing what you are better at. If your extra output at job A were shy of 100%, then there would actually be a penalty for dividing the labor more efficiently!

Income taxation has the worst effect on division of labor in the form of barter. Suppose that the person doing job B is actually interested in having job A done for him. Now suppose you could amazingly do job A four times over, selling half your work on the market for cash just to pay your tax bill. The other half of the work you do for somebody who does job B twice over but he has to sell off half to pay his tax bill. You're left with one unit of job B, but only if you were 400% as productive doing job A! In this case of 50% tax on barter income, anything less than 400% productivity will cause the division of labor to fail.

In summary, depending on the situation a 50% tax rate can cause the division of labor to fail even where productivity gains of up to 300% would have resulted. Even a mere 30% tax rate can negate the advantage of a 100% productivity gain.

Early Theorists


In Plato's Republic we are instructed that the origin of the state lies in that "natural" inequality of humanity that is embodied in the division of labour.

"Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs. So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men...." (The Republic, Page 103, Penguin Classics edition.)


Xenophon, writing in the fourth century BC makes a passing reference to division of labour in his 'Cyropaedia' (aka Education of Cyrus).

"Just as the various trades are most highly developed in large cities, in the same way food at the palace is prepared in a far superior manner. In small towns the same man makes couches, doors, ploughs and tables, and often he even builds houses, and still he is thankful if only he can find enough work to support himself. And it is impossible for a man of many trades to do all of them well. In large cities, however, because many make demands on each trade, one alone is enough to support a man, and often less than one: for instance one man makes shoes for men, another for women, there are places even where one man earns a living just by mending shoes, another by cutting them out, another just by sewing the uppers together, while there is another who performs none of these operations but assembles the parts, Of necessity, he who pursues a very specialised task will do it best." (Cited in The Ancient Economy by M. I. Finley. Penguin books 1992, p 135.) kk

William Petty

Sir William Petty was the first modern writer to take note of division of labour, showing its existence and usefulness in Dutch shipyards. Classically the workers in a shipyard would build ships as units, finishing one before starting another. But the Dutch had it organised with several teams each doing the same tasks for successive ships. People with a particular task to do must have discovered new methods that were only later observed and justified by writers on political economy.

Petty also applied the principle to his survey of Ireland. His breakthrough was to divide up the work so that large parts of it could be done by people with no extensive training.

Bernard de Mandeville

Bernard de Mandeville discusses the matter in the second volume of The Fable of the Bees. This elaborates many matters raised by the original poem about a 'Grumbling Hive'. He says:

But if one will wholly apply himself to the making of Bows and Arrows, whilst another provides Food, a third builds Huts, a fourth makes Garments, and a fifth Utensils, they not only become useful to one another, but the Callings and Employments themselves will in the same Number of Years receive much greater Improvements, than if all had been promiscuously follow’d by every one of the Five.

David Hume

David Hume talks about "partition of employments" in "A Treatise of Human Nature" (1739):

When every individual person labours a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labour being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability encreases: And by mutual succour we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.

Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau

In his additions to l’”Art de l’Épinglier” - The Art of the Pin-Maker - (1761), Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau writes about the "division of labour:

There is nobody who is not surprised of the small price of pins; but we shall be even more surprised, when we know how many different operations, most of them very delicate, are mandatory to make a good pin. We are going to go through these operations in a few words to stimulate the curiosity to know their detail; this enumeration will supply as many articles which will make the division of this labour. [...] The first operation is to have brass go through the drawing plate to calibrate it. [...]

Adam Smith

In the first sentence of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labour represents a qualitative increase in productivity. His example was the making of pins. Unlike Plato, Smith famously argued that the difference between a street porter and a philosopher was as much a consequence of the division of labour as its cause. Therefore, while for Plato the level of specialisation determined by the division of labour was externally determined, for Smith it was the dynamic engine of economic progress. However, in a further chapter of the same book Smith criticises the division of labour saying it leads to a 'mental mutilation' in workers; they become ignorant and insular as their working lives are confined to a single repetitive task. The contradiction has led to some debate over Smith's opinion of the division of labour.

The specialisation and concentration of the workers on their single subtasks often leads to greater skill and greater productivity on their particular subtasks than would be achieved by the same number of workers each carrying out the original broad task.

Smith saw the importance of matching skills with equipment - usually in the context of an organisation. For example, pin makers were organised with one making the head, another the body, each using different equipment. Similarly he emphasised a large number of skills, used in cooperation and with suitable equipment, were required to build a ship.

In modern economic discussion the term human capital would be used. Smith's insight suggests that the huge increases in productivity obtainable from technology or technological progress are possible because human and physical capital are matched, usually in an organisation. See also a short discussion of Adam Smith's theory in the context of business processes.

Karl Marx

Increasing the specialization may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. This viewpoint was extended and refined by Karl Marx. He described the process as alienation; workers become more and more specialised and work repetitious which eventually leads to complete alienation. Marx wrote that "with this division of labour", the worker is "depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine". He believed that the fullness of production is essential to human liberation and accepted the idea of a strict division of labour only as a temporary necessary evil.

Marx's most important theoretical contribution was his sharp distinction between the social division and the technical or economic division of labour. That is, some forms of labour co-operation are due purely to technical necessity, but others are purely a result of a social control function related to a class and status hierarchy. If these two divisions are conflated, it might appear as though the existing division of labour is technically inevitable and immutable, rather than (in good part) socially constructed and influenced by power relationships.

It may be, for example, that it is technically necessary that both pleasant and unpleasant jobs must be done by a group of people. But from that fact alone, it does not follow that any particular person must do any particular (pleasant or unpleasant) job. If particular people get to do the unpleasant jobs and others the pleasant jobs, this cannot be explained by technical necessity; it is a socially made decision, which could be made using a variety of different criteria. The tasks could be rotated, or a person could be assigned to a task permanently, and so on.

Marx also suggests that the capitalist division of labour will evolve over time such that the maximum amount of labour is productive labour, where productive labour is defined as labour which creates surplus value.

In Marx's imagined communist society, the division of labour is transcended, meaning that balanced human development occurs where people fully express their nature in the variety of creative work that they do.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau has criticised the division of labour in his Walden (published in 1854), on the basis that it is less efficient. He claims that the average man in a civilised society is less wealthy, in practice, than one in a "savage" society. The answer he gives is self-sufficiency, which he finds is enough to cover one's basic needs. as quoted by Harry Tobin 2nd

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim wrote about a fractionated, unequal world by dividing it along the lines of "human solidarity," its essential moral value is division of labour. In 1893 he published "The Division of Labour in Society", his fundamental statement of the nature of human society and its social development. According to Franz Borkenau it was a great increase in division of labour occurring in the 1800s after the Industrial Revolution that introduced the abstract category of work, which may be said to underlie, in turn, the whole modern, Cartesian notion that our bodily existence is merely an object of our (abstract) consciousness.

Ludwig von Mises

On the other hand, Marx's theories, including the negative claims regarding the division of labor have been criticized by the Austrian economists, such as Ludwig von Mises.

The main argument here is the gains accruing from the division of labor far outweigh the costs; it is fully possible to achieve balanced human development within capitalism, and alienation is more a romantic fiction. After all, work is not all there is; there is also leisure time.


The issue reaches its broadest scope in the controversies about globalization, which is often interpreted as a euphemism for the expansion of world trade based on comparative advantage. This would mean that countries specialise in the work they can do best. Critics however allege that international specialisation cannot be explained very well in terms of "the work nations do best", rather this specialisation is guided more by commercial criteria, which favour some countries over others.

The OECD recently advised (28 June 2005) that:

"Efficient policies to encourage employment and combat unemployment are essential if countries are to reap the full benefits of globalisation and avoid a backlash against open trade... Job losses in some sectors, along with new job opportunities in other sectors, are an inevitable accompaniment of the process of globalisation... The challenge is to ensure that the adjustment process involved in matching available workers with new job openings works as smoothly as possible."

Modern debates

In the modern world, those specialists most preoccupied in their work with theorising about the division of labour are those involved in management and organisation. In view of the global extremities of the division of labour, the question is often raised about what division of labour would be most ideal, beautiful, efficient and just.

Labour hierarchy is to a great extent inevitable, simply because no one can do all tasks at once; but of course the way these hierarchies are structured can be influenced by a variety of different factors. The question to ask is what the hierarchy is a hierarchy of.

It is often agreed that the most equitable principle in allocating people within hierarchies is that of true (or proven) competency or ability. This important Western concept of meritocracy could be read as an explanation or as a justification of why a division of labour is the way it is.

In general, in capitalist economies, such things are not decided consciously. Different people try different things, and that which is most effective (produces the most and best output with the least input) will generally be adopted. Often techniques that work in one place or time do not work as well in another. This does not present a problem, as the only requirement of a capitalist system is that the value of your outputs exceed the value of your inputs.

Sexual division of labour

The clearest exposition of the principles of sexual division of labour across the full range of human societies can be summarised by a large number of logically complementary implicational constraints of the following form: if women of childbearing ages in a given community tend to do X (e.g., preparing soil for planting) they will also do Y (e.g., the planting) while for men the logical reversal in this example would be that if men plant they will prepare the soil. The 'Cross Cultural Analysis of the Sexual Division of Labor ' by White, Brudner and Burton (1977, public domain), using statistical entailment analysis, shows that tasks more frequently chosen by women in these order relations are those more convenient in relation to childrearing. This type of finding has been replicated in a variety of studies, including modern industrial economies. These entailments do not restrict how much work for any given task could be done by men (e.g., in cooking) or by women (e.g., in clearing forests) but are only least-effort or role-consistent tendencies. To the extent that women clear forests for agriculture, for example, they tend to do the entire agricultural sequence of tasks on those clearings. In theory, these types of constraints could be removed by provisions of child care, but ethnographic examples are lacking.

Further reading

ch. 2, "Division of Labor in Households and Families"
Supplement "Human Capital, Effort, and the Sexual Division of Labor," Journal of Labor Economics, 3(1) Part 2 1985), p p. S33-S58.

  • Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital; The Degradation of Labor in the 20th Century
  • Stephanie Coontz & Peta Henderson, Women's Work, Men's Property: The Origins of Gender and Class.
  • Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society.
  • Deon Filmer, Estimating the World at Work, a background report for *Richard Florida, The rise of the creative class.
  • Richard Florida, The flight of the creative class.
  • F. Froebel, F., J. Heinrichs and O. Krey, The New International Division of Labour. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd and Ernst Feghr. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life.
  • André Gorz, The Division of Labour: The Labour Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism.
  • Peter Groenewegen (1987). "division of labour," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 1, pp. 901-07.
  • James Heartfield, "The Economy of Time"
  • Bertell Ollman, Sexual and social revolution.
  • Ali Rattansi, Marx and the Division of Labour.
  • George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise On Economics.
  • Murray Rothbard, Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor
  • George J. Stigler (1951),"The Division of Labor is Limited by the Extent of the Market," Journal of Political Economy, 59(3), p p. 185-193.
  • World Bank, World Development Report 1995. Washington DC.

See also


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