The apparent miracle of the division of labour became a mantra of capitalist economics that was swiftly put into practice throughout the industrial world. It also ushered in the era of monotonous work. Buried in the final pages of The Wealth of Nations, Smith admitted that the results included not only greater national income but also ‘torpor of the mind’ and a loss of ‘tender sentiment’. He said that ‘the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention.’
Many people today know just what Smith was talking about, for we are the inheritors of the division of labour. Whether we are employed in factories or offices, the chances are that we are charged with performing a small number of specialised tasks: copyediting reports, entering data, practising commercial law, serving at the checkout till, designing logos. Few are permitted to be craftspeople, drawing on multiple skills to take a job from start to finish. We are denied the satisfactions of a chair maker who might cut down the tree, then strip the bark, shape the rungs, steam the legs, bore the mortices, clamp the pieces, weave the seat and finally polish the wood with beeswax.
…Some people are searching for work that expands their personal horizons by providing new challenges, opportunities for learning, and ways to use their talents and creativity. There are those who want their jobs to express their values and politics. Others see work as a way of gaining deeper self-knowledge, or understanding of other people and cultures. Many desire careers that are a source of friendship or offer a sense of belonging or adventure. And some are intent on finding their personal calling: a career that provides a meaningful guide to the whole course of their lives.
I believe we should strive to transform work into part of our personal art of living. We need not accept Mark Twain’s opinion that ‘work is a necessary evil to be avoided.’ We must be more demanding of our work and of ourselves, and not sink into the resigned admission that work has to be ‘just a job’ with few rewards beyond the wage. Life is so excruciatingly short, and earning a living is such a large chunk of our limited time on the earth, that we cannot permit work to be a toad.
— Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live?
As Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations, specialization is both the cause and the effect of prosperity, and it creates the modern economic life that allows us to move beyond subsistence. Small groups of people — no matter how talented, no matter how skilled or strong or smart — cannot be wealthy by modern standards over any sustained period of time…Without that specialization, and innovation — if we had to depend on, say, just our family and friends, regardless of their talents — we would be close to subsistence, the economic reality for most of human history. The poorest people in the world today still struggle, no matter their talents, because they are connected economically only to those who are nearby.
…Some people view this lack of interpersonal interaction as a great loss. Perhaps it is. But it is the unavoidable price of modernity and wealth. Trading only with people we care about or are able to see and interact with would leave us with a very limited number of people to trade with. And that would mean we would be very poor. The “buy local” movement has been successful with a very limited number of products — food and some handcrafted items. The ability to broaden the scope of the movement is very limited. We tried buying local once; it was called the Middle Ages. But one reason people were poor in the Middle Ages is that when you trade mostly with people who live nearby, you are bound to be very poor. There just isn’t enough specialization possible with a limited number of trading partners. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.
…Unfortunately, Smith’s insights in The Wealth of Nations are not fully understood. We don’t teach our children or even our economics students much about what sustains our modern standard of living…I suspect that if we appreciated the role of specialization and exchange in creating the wonders of modern life, we would be more tolerant of its imperfections and more eager to preserve what gives it its power.
— Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life