division of labor

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

division of labor

division of labor, in economics, the specialization of the functions and roles involved in production. Division of labor is closely tied with the standardization of production, the introduction and perfection of machinery, and the development of large-scale industry. Among the different categories of division of labor are territorial, in which certain geographical regions specialize in producing certain products, exchanging their surplus for goods produced elsewhere; temporal, in which separate processes are performed by different industrial groups in manufacturing one product, as the making of bread by farmers, millers, and bakers; and occupational, in which goods produced in the same industrial group are worked by a number of persons, each applying one or more processes and skills. Modern mass-production techniques are based on the last type. The proficiency attained through experience at one task and the time saved by concentration on one phase of an operation are such that the total production is many times what it would be had each worker made the complete article. The classic example is that given by Adam Smith, advocate of free trade (of which the division of labor is the underlying principle), in which 10 men, each performing one or more of the 18 operations necessary to make a pin, together produce 48,000 pins a day, whereas working separately they could not make 200. Problems created by the division of labor include the monotony of concentration on routine tasks, technological unemployment for people whose skills are not in demand, and eventually chronic unemployment if the economy does not expand quickly enough to reabsorb the displaced labor. Each variant of the division of labor has its own peculiar problems of distribution.

See R. A. Brady, Organization, Automation, and Society (1961); E. Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (tr. 1965); H. R. Bowen and G. L. Mangum, ed., Automation and Economic Progress (1967); T. Kiss, International Division of Labour in Open Economies (1971).

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