Specialization of Labor, Pros and Cons
The main reasons for the increased speed and efficiency in production are attributed to the following advantages of labor specialization:
- Workers will more quickly and easily learn how to perform their tasks
- It reduces transition time between different tasks
- Specialist equipment can be developed to assist with task repetition
- It helps to create uniform quality standards
On the first point, the importance of learning and the skills gained from repeatedly performing the same tasks can easily be underestimated. However, just as the famous 10,000 hour rule suggests, workers really do continue to get better and better at simple tasks for many months and even years. During that time, as they get faster, they will increase their productivity very significantly.
The reduction in transition times between tasks as division of labor is implemented is another huge benefit. Transition time includes more than just walking from one workstation to another, it also includes setting up time and time taken to clear away the remnants of the previous task. Depending on the industry this can eat away at valuable production time.
The specialist equipment that can be developed to assist with repetitive tasks may range from simple tools to complex machinery. Consider, for example, how a simple sewing machine increases the productivity of workers in the clothing & textile industry. With division of labor, some workers who focus only on sewing can become highly proficient in the use of sewing machines.
Other workers will then specialize in cutting cloth, and become highly proficient at that. Yet others will specialize in packaging, quality control and so on. If all workers were to carry out all of these tasks, none would develop the skills necessary to become fully proficient in the use of sewing machines or any of the other specialist equipment used in the clothing & textiles industry.
Uniform quality standards are a trait of mass production, and it helps to build brand recognition. Individually crafted products may or may not be preferred when buying certain items, like artwork or pottery for example, but it is more typical that customers will want to buy products that they know and trust.
The disadvantages of division of labor are, sadly, also significant. They can be categorized into the following types of negative effects:
- The work can become extremely tedious, with negative mental health consequences
- Repetitive strain injuries become more prevalent
- The specific skills learned are more prone to becoming redundant
- Increased worker absenteeism and reduced employee retention
- Bottlenecks on a production line may appear
The tedious nature of repeating a small number of tasks throughout an entire working day, day after day, week after week, can lead to mental stress through boredom. This is not true of every job, there's no boredom associated with specializing as a striker for a world class soccer team, but historically many specialized jobs on production lines and so on have been extremely tedious. Of course, automation with machines is replacing many of these types of jobs, but division of labor will still tend to make many jobs that bit more tedious.
Repetitive strain injuries occur for workers in many specialized jobs, and they can be serious. Jobs that require a lot of bending and lifting can cause long-term back problems. Handlers of machinery can suffer damage to the blood circulation in their hands e.g. 'white finger'. There are many other examples.
As indicated above, machinery is increasingly used to perform many of the repetitive tasks in the workplace, meaning that the workers that previously performed them were replaced. Going forward, with artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, this will apply to many other types of jobs that were previously thought to be safe.
Lack of job satisfaction and increased boredom is another obvious problem with the division of labor, and increased absenteeism is a direct consequence. Difficulty retaining employees at all is a related problem, and staff turnover rates can be high.
Temporary bottlenecks in production can occur with the division of labor when one stage of production is disrupted. For example, in the automotive industry an entire production line will stop if any of its specialized tasks are stopped.
Emile Durkheim, Axel Honneth & Karl Marx on Division of Labor
The fundamental role of work within our societies, and of each person's contribution to society through that work, has sparked a great deal of thought beyond that of how to organize the most efficient means of production.
Durkheim writes about the division of labor and its effects on the solidarity of society, Marx writes about labor in terms of its vital contribution to building community and self-realization among people. In contrast to these two, Honneth downplays the significance of work in its own right, and sees it as one of many reflections of a more general struggle to achieve respect and recognition (albeit an important one).
I won't get into these broader discussions here as it falls outside the scope of economics alone, but for interested students I've provided a link to an article that summarizes these thinkers' writings on the division of labor. To read it, click the De Souza link below.