Division of labor

The division of labor is an economic concept which combines specialization and the partition of a complex production task into several, or many, sub-tasks which enables workers to focus on specific tasks. This concept was popularised by Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

The division of labor is an important concept in modern economic theories, which generally affects all human organizations, from the smallest communities, such as the family, to the largest multinational companies. In fact, work is one of the factors of production and its organization has an essential role in the functioning, evolution and quality of life in all types of society. Individuals, organizations, and nations are endowed with or acquire specialized capabilities and either form combinations or trade to take advantage of the capabilities of others in addition to their own.

A modern economy displays a division of labor, in which people earn income by specializing in what they produce and then use that income to purchase the products they need or want. The division of labor allows individuals and firms to specialize and to produce more for several reasons:

  1. it allows the agents to focus on areas of advantage due to natural factors and skill levels;
  2. it encourages the agents to learn and invent;
  3. it allows agents to take advantage of economies of scale.

Division and specialization of labor only work when individuals can purchase what they do not produce in markets. Learning about economics helps you understand the major problems facing the world today, prepares you to be a good citizen, and helps you become a well-rounded thinker.

Why the division of labor increases production

When we divide and subdivide the tasks involved with producing a good or service, workers and businesses can produce a greater quantity of output. In his observations of pin factories, Smith noticed that one worker alone might make 20 pins in a day, but that a small business of 10 workers (some of whom would need to complete two or three of the 18 tasks involved with pin-making), could make 48,000 pins in a day. How can a group of workers, each specializing in certain tasks, produce so much more than the same number of workers who try to produce the entire good or service by themselves? Smith offered three reasons. 

First, specialization in a particular small job allows workers to focus on the parts of the production process where they have an advantage. People have different skills, talents, and interests, so they will be better at some jobs than at others. The particular advantages may be based on educational choices, which are in turn shaped by interests and talents. Only those with medical degrees qualify to become doctors, for instance. For some goods, geography affects specialization. For example, it is easier to be a wheat farmer in North Dakota than in Florida, but easier to run a tourist hotel in Florida than in North Dakota. If you live in or near a big city, it is easier to attract enough customers to operate a successful dry cleaning business or movie theater than if you live in a sparsely populated rural area. Whatever the reason, if people specialize in the production of what they do best, they will be more effective than if they produce a combination of things, some of which they are good at and some of which they are not. 

Second, workers who specialize in certain tasks often learn to produce more quickly and with higher quality. This pattern holds true for many workers, including assembly line laborers who build cars, stylists who cut hair, and doctors who perform heart surgery. In fact, specialized workers often know their jobs well enough to suggest innovative ways to do their work faster and better. A similar pattern often operates within businesses. In many cases, a business that focuses on one or a few products (sometimes called its “core competency”) is more successful than firms that try to make a wide range of products. 

Third, specialization allows businesses to take advantage of economies of scale, which means that for many goods, as the level of production increases, the average cost of producing each individual unit declines. For example, if a factory produces only 100 cars per year, each car will be quite expensive to make on average. However, if a factory produces 50,000 cars each year, then it can set up an assembly line with huge machines and workers performing specialized tasks, and the average cost of production per car will be lower. The ultimate result of workers who can focus on their preferences and talents, learn to do their specialized jobs better, and work in larger organizations is that society as a whole can produce and consume far more than if each person tried to produce all of his or her own goods and services. The division and specialization of labor has been a force against the problem of scarcity.

References

  1. Principles of Economics 2e. OpenStax. Authors: Steven A. Greenlaw, David Shapiro. https://openstax.org/books/principles-economics-2e/pages/1-introduction

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