Does the Division of Labor Promote the Division of Society?

Karen Bell – Summer 2


The division of labor is evident in almost everything that we do. In your home, your family may be cleaning the house, so your mother will wash the laundry, your father will clean up the backyard, your sister will organize the kitchen, and you will be vacuuming the living room. On another occasion, your parents may want the laundry process to be faster and more efficient; thus, each time laundry is done, one sibling of the family may sort the clothes and linens, another may load the machines, another child may be assigned to iron the clothes, once dried, and the final child may be required to fold the laundry as the parents simply distribute the clothing back to the children in order for them to repeat the process later. Each family member had been assigned a job and practices that specific task regularly and independently as it is a job in which only a certain member of the family can properly. However, one may argue that the process becomes repetitive, and all each family member knows how to do is solely his or her job. Although the entire family is working together to reach one goal- a house of clean laundry- the family is divided in the process because not only does one member potentially have a more noble laundry assignment than another, but there is also the fact that each task is done alone at one level, below or above another. Let us not forget that all the children are doing this grueling work for the parents who get to perform their measly task, then sit back, kick up their feet, and live the good life. One has to understand, though, that although everyone plays a different role in the process, each is motivated to work together towards a common goal: a house void of dirty laundry. Yes, this example may seem a bit extreme, for laundry is just laundry, but this is a small scale example of what is speculated to be happening in our society. Though at first glance the division of labor seems to divide our society into different levels and categories, after taking a thorough look at the system, the division of labor does not necessarily promote the division of society.

The division of labor, according to Adam Smith, can incredibly beneficial, particularly for manufacturers. Smith states that “the division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour.” [1] He proceeds to provide examples, proving truth within this statement, by discussing the making of pins and how much more efficient it is to have several workers make different parts of the pin as they become proficient in an isolated are of production. Because of the division of labor, Adam speculates that if ten men were to work on making pins and each were assigned to one specific step within the production process, then the group of employees could potentially make four thousand eight hundred pins. However, if the number of employees reduced, and each man did two or three of the steps within production, or, better yet, if only one man were making the entire pin himself, then the number of pins produced in one day would be nowhere near the four thousand eight hundred pins of the previous example. [2] In the pin-making example given to us by Smith, a general task has been broken down into smaller, simpler jobs though some are simpler than others- while one man may just be drawing out the wire, another may have to manufacture the head that will rest on top of the pin. This process seems quite innocent, as no job inequalities are evident, but once the perspective is broadened to a greater production cycle, potential issues may arise.

One of Smith’s primary concerns is that these simplified tasks for workers at a lower level of production can lead to “an ignorant, dissatisfied workforce.” [3] As these workers continuously perform only one step within the entire process of production, one may tend to believe that this method is purposefully encouraging workers not to learn anymore than they do for their job and that the system promotes the idea that the employees are not capable of doing more, not only for their job, but also for their society. Though a reasonable concern, this is not the case. The system of division of labor was not formulated in order to limit citizens’ capabilities. This method was formed and encouraged solely for the benefit of production. Smith said it himself that the “separation…is generally carried furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement.” [4] Improvement of any field requires meticulous and precise work, and narrowing down jobs will make the end product more efficient. In addition, having employees specialize in an isolated area of production makes the end product more precise, as each step was performed by a specialist. Finally, the division of labor does not only benefit the production process, product efficiency, and the consumer, but it also benefits the employees. The division of labor produces several jobs for those seeking work and helps to keep any given nation’s unemployment rate at a reasonable level. Looking at the employment statistics of the United States in 2015 can give us insight into how beneficial this method can be.

As of right now, the United States’ unemployment rate is at a steady 5.5%, and as of May 2015, the statistics for newly employed workers and the number of jobs created looks reasonable. In the month of May alone, healthcare added 47,000 jobs, and hospitals added 16,000 jobs. In the past year, 408,000 jobs have been added in healthcare. In business services, 63,000 jobs were added in May. Jobs were even added to the field of truck transportation- 9,000. These statistics are just a few that show how beneficial the division of labor can be. [5] Jobs being added means employment opportunities, and this, by no means, is intended to divide society. There will always be a class system, and it is based on income, which, in turn, is based on what type of profession one pursues. This does not mean that society is divided because everyone is working toward a common goal within their field. If a group of individuals wants to make and sell a laptop, someone will design the laptop, several people will construct and develop the parts for the laptop, another group will assemble the various parts in order to put the laptop together, another will sell the laptop. It is probable that the individual selling the laptop may have more financial gain than those developing the parts for the laptop, but they are working together on a united front, not a divided one, in order to produce and sell this particular laptop.

Another real life example is one in my mother’s field. Recently at my mother’s company, a few of her employees were having slight difficulties performing their tasks as efficiently as they could because of the time constraints and enormity of their work load. In order to raise the quality level in the work place, my mother and her fellow executive directors examined the work that was being done by the struggling employees and developed a few other jobs that would alleviate the work load and would result in a more efficient result. As my mother hired employees to fill the new positions created, the board saw that the quality level rose and in the end benefited the company. In this example, it is evident that the division of labor did simplify the jobs of the initial workers, but it by no means made anyone more ignorant. In fact, in order to work in most positions, the employees must be educated about how the other positions that collaborate with them. In other words, each position must know how the other positions to their left and right function. Thus, contrary to what Smith believed, the division of labor does not cause individuals to be dumbed down and limited to the sole knowledge of their particular task.

If asked if the division of labor promotes the division of society, I will have to respond by saying that I do not believe so. Rather, it creates more employment opportunities that allow for more people to have jobs as well as it increases the number of people within a field working toward a common goal. If anything, though a little ironic, the division of labor may be a means to unite groups together.

[1] “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, edited by Mr. Aparacio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[2] “The Wealth of Nations”

[3] Dhamee, Yousuf. “Adam Smith and the Division of Labor.” Adam Smith and the Division of Labor. April 15, 2005. Accessed June 28, 2015.

[4] “The Wealth of Nations”

[5] “Employment Situation Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. June 5, 2015. Accessed June 28, 2015.

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