Division of labour

The division of labour is the separation of tasks in any economic system or organisation so that participants may specialise. Individuals, organisations, and nations are endowed with or acquire specialised capabilities and either form combinations or trade to take advantage of the capabilities of others in addition to their own. Specialised capabilities may include equipment or natural resources in addition to skills and training and complex combinations of such assets are often important, as when multiple items of specialised equipment and skilled operators are used to produce a single product. The division of labour is the motive for trade and the source of economic interdependence.
After the Neolithic Revolution, pastoralism and agriculture led to more reliable and abundant food supplies, which increased the population and led to specialisation of labour, including new classes of artisans, warriors, and the development of elites. This specialistion was furthered by the process of industrialisation, and Industrial Revolution-era factories. Accordingly many classical economists as well as some mechanical engineers such as Charles Babbage were proponents of division of labour. Also, having workers perform single or limited tasks eliminated the long training period required to train craftsmen, who were replaced with lesser paid but more productive unskilled workers.
Historically, an increasing division of labour is associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and the increasing complexity of industrialised processes. The concept and implementation of division of labour has been observed in ancient Sumerian culture, where assignment of jobs in some cities coincided with an increase in trade and economic interdependence. Division of labour generally also increases both producer and individual worker productivity.

Ancient theories


In Plato's Republic, the origin of the state lies in the natural inequality of humanity, which is embodied in the division of labour:
Silvermintz notes that "Historians of economic thought credit Plato, primarily on account of arguments advanced in his Republic, as an early proponent of the division of labour." Notwithstanding this, Silvermintz argues that "While Plato recognises both the economic and political benefits of the division of labour, he ultimately critiques this form of economic arrangement insofar as it hinders the individual from ordering his own soul by cultivating acquisitive motives over prudence and reason."


, in the 4th century BC, makes a passing reference to division of labour in his Cyropaedia.

Ibn Khaldun

The 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun emphasised the importance of the division of labour in the production process. In his Muqaddimah, he states:

Modern theories

William Petty

was the first modern writer to take note of the division of labour, showing its existence and usefulness in Dutch shipyards. Classically the workers in a shipyard would build ships as units, finishing one before starting another. But the Dutch had it organised with several teams each doing the same tasks for successive ships. People with a particular task to do must have discovered new methods that were only later observed and justified by writers on political economy.
Petty also applied the principle to his survey of Ireland. His breakthrough was to divide up the work so that large parts of it could be done by people with no extensive training.

Bernard de Mandeville

discusses the matter in the second volume of The Fable of the Bees. This elaborates many matters raised by the original poem about a 'Grumbling Hive'. He says:

David Hume

Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau

In his introduction to The Art of the Pin-Maker, Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau writes about the "division of this work":
By "division of this work," du Monceau is referring to the subdivisions of
the text describing the various trades involved in the pin making activity; this can also be described as a division of labour.

Adam Smith

In the first sentence of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labour represents a substantial increase in productivity. Like du Monceau, his example was the making of pins.
Unlike Plato, Smith famously argued that the difference between a street porter and a philosopher was as much a consequence of the division of labour as its cause. Therefore, while for Plato the level of specialisation determined by the division of labour was externally determined, for Smith it was the dynamic engine of economic progress. However, in a further chapter of the same book, Smith criticises the division of labour saying it can lead to "the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people.…unless the government takes some pains to prevent it." The contradiction has led to some debate over Smith's opinion of the division of labour. Alexis de Tocqueville agreed with Smith: "Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labor." Adam Ferguson shared similar views to Smith, though was generally more negative.
The specialisation and concentration of the workers on their single subtasks often leads to greater skill and greater productivity on their particular subtasks than would be achieved by the same number of workers each carrying out the original broad task. Smith uses the example of a production capability of an individual pin maker compared to a manufacturing business that employed 10 men:
One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day.
Smith saw the importance of matching skills with equipment—usually in the context of an organisation. For example, pin makers were organised with one making the head, another the body, each using different equipment. Similarly, he emphasised a large number of skills, used in cooperation and with suitable equipment, were required to build a ship.
In the modern economic discussion, the term human capital would be used. Smith's insight suggests that the huge increases in productivity obtainable from technology or technological progress are possible because human and physical capital are matched, usually in an organisation. See also a short discussion of Adam Smith's theory in the context of business processes. Babbage wrote a seminal work "On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures" analysing perhaps for the first time the division of labour in factories.

Immanuel Kant

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant notes the value of the division of labour:
All crafts, trades and arts have profited from the division of labour; for when each worker sticks to one particular kind of work that needs to be handled differently from all the others, he can do it better and more easily than when one person does everything. Where work is not thus differentiated and divided, where everyone is a jack-of-all-trades, the crafts remain at an utterly primitive level.

Karl Marx

Marx argued that increasing the specialisation may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. He described the process as alienation: workers become more and more specialised and work becomes repetitive, eventually leading to complete alienation from the process of production. The worker then becomes "depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine."
Additionally, Marx argued that the division of labour creates less-skilled workers. As the work becomes more specialised, less training is needed for each specific job, and the workforce, overall, is less skilled than if one worker did one job entirely.
Among Marx's theoretical contributions is his sharp distinction between the economic and the social division of labour. That is, some forms of labour co-operation are purely due to "technical necessity", but others are a result of a "social control" function related to a class and status hierarchy. If these two divisions are conflated, it might appear as though the existing division of labour is technically inevitable and immutable, rather than socially constructed and influenced by power relationships. He also argues that in a communist society, the division of labour is transcended, meaning that balanced human development occurs where people fully express their nature in the variety of creative work that they do.

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson

criticised the division of labour in Walden, on the basis that it removes people from a sense of connectedness with society and with the world at large, including nature. He claimed that the average man in a civilised society is less wealthy, in practice than one in "savage" society. The answer he gave was that self-sufficiency was enough to cover one's basic needs.
Thoreau's friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, criticised the division of labour in his "The American Scholar" speech: a widely informed, holistic citizenry is vital for the spiritual and physical health of the country.

Émile Durkheim

In his seminal work, The Division of Labor in Society, Émile Durkheim observes that the division of labour appears in all societies and positively correlates with societal advancement because it increases as a society progresses.
Durkheim arrived at the same conclusion regarding the positive effects of the division of labour as his theoretical predecessor, Adam Smith. In The Wealth of the Nations, Smith observes the division of labour results in "a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour." While they shared this belief, Durkheim believed the division of labour applied to all "biological organisms generally," while Smith believed this law applied "only to human societies." This difference may result from the influence of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on Durkheim’s writings. For example, Durkheim observed an apparent relationship between "the functional specialisation of the parts of an organism" and "the extent of that organism's evolutionary development," which he believed "extended the scope of the division of labour so as to make its origins contemporaneous with the origins of life itself…implying that its conditions must be found in the essential properties of all organised matter."
Since Durkheim’s division of labour applied to all organisms, he considered it a "natural law" and worked to determine whether it should be embraced or resisted by first analysing its functions. Durkheim hypothesised that the division of labour fosters social solidarity, yielding "a wholly moral phenomenon" that ensures "mutual relationships" among individuals.
As social solidarity cannot be directly quantified, Durkheim indirectly studies solidarity by "classify the different types of law to find...the different types of social solidarity which correspond to it." Durkheim categorises:
Durkheim believes that organic solidarity prevails in more advanced societies, while mechanical solidarity typifies less developed societies. He explains that in societies with more mechanical solidarity, the diversity and division of labour is much less, so individuals have a similar worldview. Similarly, Durkheim opines that in societies with more organic solidarity, the diversity of occupations is greater, and individuals depend on each other more, resulting in greater benefits to society as a whole. Durkheim’s work enabled social science to progress more efficiently "in…the understanding of human social behavior."

Ludwig von Mises

Marx's theories, including the negative claims regarding the division of labour have been criticised by the Austrian economists, notably Ludwig von Mises. The main argument here is the economic gains accruing from the division of labour far outweigh the costs. It is argued that it is fully possible to achieve balanced human development within capitalism, and alienation is downplayed as mere romantic fiction.

Friedrich A. Hayek

In "The Use of Knowledge in Society", Friedrich A. Hayek states:

Globalisation and global division of labour

The issue reaches its broadest scope in the controversies about globalisation, which is often interpreted as a euphemism for the expansion of international trade based on comparative advantage. This would mean that countries specialise in the work they can do at the lowest relative cost measured in terms of the opportunity cost of not using resources for other work, compared to the opportunity costs experienced countries. Critics, however, allege that international specialisation cannot be explained sufficiently in terms of "the work nations do best", rather this specialisation is guided more by commercial criteria, which favour some countries over others.
The OECD advised in June 2005 that:
Few studies have taken place regarding the global division of labour. Information can be drawn from ILO and national statistical offices. In one study, Deon Filmer estimated that 2.474 billion people participated in the global non-domestic labour force in the mid-1990s. Of these:
The majority of workers in industry and services were wage and salary earners—58 percent of the industrial workforce and 65 percent of the services workforce. But a big portion was self-employed or involved in family labour. Filmer suggests the total of employees worldwide in the 1990s was about 880 million, compared with around a billion working on own account on the land, and some 480 million working on own account in industry and services. The 2007 ILO Global Employment Trends Report indicated that services have surpassed agriculture for the first time in human history:
In 2006 the service sector’s share of global employment overtook agriculture for the first time, increasing from 39.5 percent to 40 percent. Agriculture decreased from 39.7 percent to 38.7 percent. The industry sector accounted for 21.3 percent of total employment.

Contemporary theories

In the modern world, those specialists most preoccupied in their work with theorising about the division of labour are those involved in management and organisation. In view of the global extremities of the division of labour, the question is often raised about what division of labour would be most ideal, beautiful, efficient, and just.
In general, in capitalist economies, such things are not decided consciously. Different people try different things, and that which is most effective cost-wise will generally be adopted. Often techniques that work in one place or time do not work as well in another. This does not present a problem, as the only requirement of a capitalist system is that you turn a profit.

Styles of division of labour

Two styles of management that are seen in modern organisations are control and commitment:
  1. Control management, the style of the past, is based on the principles of job specialisation and the division of labour. This is the assembly-line style of job specialisation, where employees are given a very narrow set of tasks or one specific task.
  2. Commitment division of labour, the style of the future, is oriented on including the employee and building a level of internal commitment towards accomplishing tasks. Tasks include more responsibility and are coordinated based on expertise rather than formal position.
Job specialisation is advantageous in developing employee expertise in a field and boosting organisational production. However, disadvantages of job specialisation included limited employee skill, dependence on entire department fluency, and employee discontent with repetitive tasks.

Labour hierarchy

It is widely accepted that the division of labour is to a great extent inevitable, simply because no one can do all tasks at once. Labour hierarchy is a very common feature of the modern workplace structure, but the way these hierarchies are structured can be influenced by a variety of different factors, including:
It is often agreed that the most equitable principle in allocating people within hierarchies is that of true competency or ability. This important concept of meritocracy could be read as an explanation or as a justification of why a division of labour is the way it is.


famously said in The Wealth of Nations that the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. This is because it is by the exchange that each person can be specialised in their work and yet still have access to a wide range of goods and services. Hence, reductions in barriers to exchange lead to increases in the division of labour and so help to drive economic growth. Limitations to the division of labour have also been related to coordination and transportation costs.
There can be motivational advantages to a reduced division of labour. Jobs that are too specialised in a narrow range of tasks are said to result in demotivation due to boredom and alienation. Hence, a Taylorist approach to work design contributed to worsened industrial relations.
There are also limitations to the division of labour that result from workflow variations and uncertainties. These help to explain issues in modern work organisation, such as task consolidations in business process reengineering and the use of multi-skilled work teams. For instance, one stage of a production process may temporarily work at a slower pace, forcing other stages to slow down. One answer to this is to make some portion of resources mobile between stages so that those resources must be capable of undertaking a wider range of tasks. Another is to consolidate tasks so that they are undertaken one after another by the same workers and other resources. Stocks between stages can also help to reduce the problem to some extent but are costly and can hamper quality control. Modern flexible manufacturing systems require both flexible machines and flexible workers.
In project-based work, the coordination of resources is a difficult issue for the project manager as project schedules and resulting resource bookings are based on estimates of task durations and so are subject to subsequent revisions. Again, consolidating tasks so that they are undertaken consecutively by the same resources and having resources available that can be called on at short-notice from other tasks can help to reduce such problems, though at the cost of reduced specialisation.
There are also advantages in a reduced division of labour where knowledge would otherwise have to be transferred between stages. For example, having a single person deal with a customer query means that only that one person has to be familiarised with the customer’s details. It is also likely to result in the query being handled faster due to the elimination of delays in passing the query between different people.

Gendered division of labour

The clearest exposition of the principles of sexual division of labour across the full range of human societies can be summarised by a large number of logically complementary implicational constraints of the following form: if women of childbearing ages in a given community tend to do X they will also do Y while for men the logical reversal in this example would be that if men plant they will prepare the soil.
White, Brudner, and Burton's "Entailment Theory and Method: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Sexual Division of Labor", using statistical entailment analysis, shows that tasks more frequently chosen by women in these order relations are those more convenient in relation to childrearing. This type of finding has been replicated in a variety of studies, including modern industrial economies. These entailments do not restrict how much work for any given task could be done by men or by women but are only least-effort or role-consistent tendencies. To the extent that women clear forests for agriculture, for example, they tend to do the entire agricultural sequence of tasks on those clearings. In theory, these types of constraints could be removed by provisions of child care, but ethnographic examples are lacking.

Industrial organisational psychology

Job satisfaction has been shown to improve as an employee is given the task of a specific job. Students who have received PhDs in a chosen field later report increased satisfaction compared to their previous jobs. This can be attributed to their high levels of specialisation. The higher the training needed for the specialised job position, the higher is the level of job satisfaction as well, although many highly specialised jobs can be monotonous and produce high rates of burn out periodically.

Division of work

In contrast to the division of labour, a division of work refers to the division of a large task, contract, or project into smaller tasks—each with a separate schedule within the overall project schedule.
Division of labour, instead, refers to the allocation of tasks to individuals or organisations according to the skills and/or equipment those people or organisations possess. Often division of labour and division of work are both part of the economic activity within an industrial nation or organisation.

Disaggregated work

Job divided into elemental parts is sometimes called disaggregated work. Workers specialising in particular parts of the job are called specialists or professionals. The workers doing a portion of a non-recurring work may be called contractors, freelancers, or temporary workers. Modern communication technologies, in particular the internet, gave rise to sharing economy which is orchestrated by online marketplaces of various kinds of disaggregated work.