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On The Downside Of The Division Of Labor…

April 27th, 2012 · 9 Comments
Econ 101

Economists are, as a general lot, very much in support of the concepts of division of labor and trade. After all, it’s pretty clear that having people specialize and trade makes sense from an efficiency standpoint- what’s that line about being a jack of all trades and a master of none?

When you consider that people are people and not economic robots, however, the benefits of pure specialization are a bit less clear. Maybe I have ADD or something, but I think I would be more frustrated than productive if I had to do the same narrowly-defined task every day. Apparently Dilbert agrees with me:

Given this, it shouldn’t be too surprising that people who work for startups generally find their jobs to be satisfying even though they are often running around doing the most random of tasks. On that note, I have to go administer a final exam.

Tags: Econ 101

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris // Apr 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Aren’t the costs of repetitive work accounted for in prices? Wouldn’t a job with boring repetitive work pay more than a job producing the same thing but through varied non-repetitive means, ceratus paribus? If a worker voluntarily chooses the higher paying, repetitive job over the lower paying but more differentiated and rewarding job, can that really be considered a “downside of the division of labor”? Entrepreneurs continually search for the right combination of the tasks performed, wages, working conditions and benefits so as to attract the most number of workers to their firms while maximizing productive efficiency. I don’t see this as a downside at all.

  • 2 Eben in NYC, NY // Apr 27, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Guaranteed Wife Enragement Phrase = “Womans’ Work”….

  • 3 Paul Jenkins // Apr 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    @Chris: From a theory perspective, you’re on good footing, but this is one of those areas where the reality of the labor force isn’t very well described by economics without accounting for more factors.

    The highest paid, most rewarding jobs are all creative, non-repetitive work, because this work requires greater amounts of training, experience, and responsibility. Think hedge fund managers, directors, marketing folks. These workers are highly paid because the supply of labor is small, and demand is reasonably high.

    On the other hand, when you have a large division of labor with highly simplified tasks, it is much easier to find appropriate workers for those jobs. Think assembly line workers, fast food employees, and store clerks. These folks have low wages because the supply of available workers is much higher than the demand.

    You view of labor markets breaks down because you are only comparing workers within a single micro area such as a single firm where extra pay for a tedious job might be necessary to maintain the labor force, rather than across macroscopic labor markets where over time the payscales are based on supply and demand forces.

  • 4 sebastian // Apr 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    @ Chris. I think you’re thinking of accountants. Zing!

  • 5 Punditus Maximus // Apr 29, 2012 at 12:52 am

    “Wouldn’t a job with boring repetitive work pay more than a job producing the same thing but through varied non-repetitive means, ceratus paribus?”

    No, because the unskilled labor market is a monopsony, not a competitive market.

  • 6 BradyDale // Apr 30, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Hmm… yeah, I’m not sure this concept applies to work areas like engineers. For example, would it really be “boring and repetitive” if all you did all day was come up with ways to build bridges that worked better in the wind? Or even more specifically… to design bolts for bridges that were stronger, cheaper and easier to provide maintenance on?

    Sure, that’s super specific, but you’re going to be doing all kinds of things to solve the problem and find it pretty interesting.

    As a person who has always worked for small non-profits, I will say that I found the argument in this SCHUMPETER column from The Economist pretty compelling: http://econ.st/IzRl0A
    It’s hard to really focus on improving your piece of work when you are constantly interrupted by conflicting “emergencies” from everyone else’s work, you know?

    The advantage, for a creative member of staff, in being in a focused environment is you can really concentrate on the essential problems of your job without someone bugging you to fix the wi-fi or help them deal with a problem co-worker.

  • 7 Chris // May 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    “No, because the unskilled labor market is a monopsony.”

    You can’t be serious.

  • 8 Punditus Maximus // May 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    @Chris: you can’t be serious that you think it’s not. Ever been to a country club? That’s the definition of oligopolistic coordination, right there.

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