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Modern times and the division of labor

When my oldest son was a little boy, he loved machinery—backhoes, bobcats, trucks and bulldozers. When workmen were repairing our streets or our sewers he would stand transfixed and watch for as long as we let him. One time, one of the workers, noting his interest, took him aside and said—When you grow up, you don’t want to do this, stay in school as long as you can.

One of the great revolutions of the 20th century was the transition of our economy out of manufacturing and agriculture into the oft-derided service sector as the dominant source of employment. In 1900, agriculture accounted for 40% of employment. The rest was closely divided between service jobs and what the government classifies as goods-producing jobs—mostly manufacturing, mining and construction. Incredibly, service-producing jobs, mainly what we call service jobs, outnumbered goods-producing jobs for every year of the 20th century. But in 1900, it was close. Service producing jobs grew steadily and by early in the 20th century, around 1910, service-producing jobs outnumbered even agriculture. Manufacturing employment surged around WWII, but not enough to pass the service sector, and since 1950, the proportion of employment in service-producing jobs has grown steadily while manufacturing has steadily fallen.

My suspicion is that manufacturing jobs in a world of assembly lines and modern production techniques are less interesting at any give moment on the job than service jobs and so-called knowledge jobs, jobs in the IT sector or blogging or health care or retailing. That appeared to be part of the reason that backhoe operator gave my son the advice he did.

We have a sort of schizophrenia about manufacturing and other jobs that involve physical labor. Our culture romanticizes physical work as ennobling and views steel workers and backhoe operators as the salt of the earth. Yet in movies like Chaplin’s Modern Times, the culture views assembly line work as dehumanizing and degrading.

The assembly line with its division of labor and concomitant repetitiveness is a great source of wealth along with disenchantment. One might think that the movement away from manufacturing discussed above has the virtue of allowing for less repetition and a more interesting work day. (It certainly makes it easier to check out the latest sports scores or make a plane reservation over the internet.)

I started thinking about the costs and benefits of specialization and the division of labor after reading the great 19th century economist, J.B. Say’s thoughts on the division of labor. (Ended up there after Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution mentioned the Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States that was recently posted over at the Library of Economics and Liberty. Which led me to Say.

After talking about the virtues of the division of labor as a creator of wealth, Say turns to the drawbacks from specialization and even finds negative things to say about how the division of labor affects the ability of lawyers to surivive out in the real world.

A man, whose whole life is devoted to the execution of a single operation, will most assuredly acquire the faculty of executing it better and quicker than others; but he will, at the same time, be rendered less fit for every other occupation, corporeal or intellectual; his other faculties will be gradually blunted or extinguished; and the man, as an individual, will degenerate in consequence. To have never done any thing but make the eighteenth part of a pin, is a sorry account for a human being to give of his existence. Nor is it to be imagined that this degeneracy from the dignity of human nature is confined to the labourer, that plies all his life at the file or the hammer; men, whose professional duties call into play the finest faculties of the mind, are subject to similar degradation. This division of occupations has given rise to the profession of attorneys, whose sole business it is to appear in the courts of justice instead of the principals, and to follow up the different steps of the process on their behalf. These legal practitioners are, confessedly, seldom deficient in technical skill and ability; yet it is not uncommon to meet with men, even of eminence in this profession, wholly ignorant of the most simple processes of the manufactures they every day make use of; who, if they were set to work to mend the simplest article of their furniture, would scarcely know how to begin, and could probably not drive a nail, without exciting the risibility of every carpenter’s awkward apprentice; and if placed in a situation of a greater emergency, called upon, for instance, to save a drowning friend, or to rescue a fellow-townsman from a hostile attack, would be in a truly distressing perplexity; whereas a rough peasant, inhabiting a semi-barbarous district, would probably extricate himself from a similar situation with honour.

In addition to being unfit for serious carpentry, I suspect many lawyers who specialize in the arcana of a particular niche of the law can find their work boring. Yet my biochemist father-in-law, has spent his entire career studying a single enzyme, Cytochrome P450 without losing his enthusiasm for research after decades of work. I wonder how long such specialization has taken place in science? Less than a century, surely. Such specialization is both the result of our wealth and the creator of it.


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