Division of Labour (Advantages, Disadvantages, and Examples)

By Charlotte Nickerson, published July 13, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


The division of labor describes the splitting up of a complex productive task into a number of specialized, simpler tasks.

For example, an assembly line in a car-manufacturing company may have one dedicated area for attaching wheels to cars and another for affixing doors to them, with workers assigned to just one of these tasks.

This specialization allows for greater efficiency and productivity (Littek, 2001). The division of labor has been a major driving force behind the growth and prosperity of civilization.

It is one of the key reasons why, today, people are able to produce more goods and services than ever before. The division of labor is not just limited to factories and businesses.

It also exists in our homes, schools, and government. There is almost no area of human activity where the division of labor does not play a role (Littek, 2001).

Key Points

  • The division of labor is the specialization of tasks within a production process. It is a key concept in economics and is often considered one of the main causes of the increased productivity and economic growth that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.
  • Division of labor occurs when workers are allocated different tasks to perform, and it can lead to increased efficiency as each worker becomes better at their specific task.
  • This specialization can also result in economies of scale, as businesses are able to produce more output with fewer inputs.
  • While division of labor can be beneficial, it can also lead to some negative consequences. For example, it can lead to workers becoming bored or pigeon-holed into repetitive and low-skilled jobs, increase dependence, and create a lack of responsibility among workers.
  • The division of labor can be extended to other forms of labor outside of manufacturing, such as housework and childcare. Historically, women have taken on a greater proportion of these responsibilities than men.

Theories About Division of Labor

Adam Smith, a social philosopher and economist, is credited with being the first to really delve into and analyze the division of labor. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, Smith discusses how the division of labor leads to greater efficiency and productivity. He also notes that the division of labor is a major driving force behind the growth and prosperity of civilization.

The division of labor is not just economically motivated. Many sociologists consider division of labor to be a pre-condition for conceptualizing society. The social division of labor is a term used by sociologists to describe the divisions at different levels of society which comprise its complex structure.

These divisions can fall along the lines of class, gender, or ethnicity; on the role of power; on forces of social cohesion and disintegration; and on the importance of solidarity and morale. Although originally an economic concept, division of labor came to heavily influence the thought of the first major sociologists (Littek, 2001).

Following Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, another social philosopher, took a different take on the division of labor. In his view, the division of labor leads to people becoming more like machines. This, in turn, makes them less capable of thinking for themselves and living meaningful lives (Littek, 2001).

Karl Marx, a political economist, believed that the division of labor leads to workers becoming alienated from their work. He saw this as a major problem with capitalism and believed  that it was one of the key ways in which capitalists exploit workers (Littek, 2001).

Emile Durkheim believed that the division of labor is in direct proportion to the dynamic or moral density of society — a combination of the concentration of people and the amount of socialization of a group.

As people either become more concentrated, towns grow, or the amount and efficiency of communication. increases, labor becomes more divided and jobs more specialized.  Simultaneously, because tasks grow more complex and people are limited to just a small part of them, the struggle for meaningful existence becomes more strenuous (Crossman, 2019).

What Factors Led Societies to Develop the Division of Labor?

As societies have developed and become more complex, the division of labor has become more and more commonplace. There are a number of factors that have led to this development.

One factor is the increasing size of populations. With more people and greater demand for services comes a greater need for specialization and division of labor in order to be produced enough to serve everyone.

Another factor is the growth of technology and industry. As technology has advanced, it has become possible to divide tasks up even further. Not only does Technology allow people to carry out more complex tasks than before, but people must maintain this technology.

Additionally, as people began to buy and sell goods from different parts of the world, they needed to specialize in order to be able to produce what was in demand and what was economically viable to produce.

Advantages of Division of Labor

1. Efficient Mastery (Specialization of labor)

When workers specialize in a particular task, they are able to perfect their technique and produce a higher quality product (Boyce, 2021).

2. Quicker Training

The process of training an employee to carry out and perfect a complex task — like creating an entire knife from start to finish — requires, in some cases, years.

However, if the task is divided into simpler subtasks that can be learned quickly and are distributed among an entire team, the training process is much shorter and requires less skill and experience.

As a result of the division of labor, what was once considered to be manufacturable only by artisans and experts can become accessible to relatively low-skilled workers (Boyce, 2021).

3. Productivity

As the scope of each worker's task becomes smaller, workers are better able to complete that task in a short amount of time. As a result, they can complete more tasks in a day, leading to increased productivity (Boyce, 2021).

4. Efficient Allocation of Workers

The division of labor  allows for a more efficient allocation of workers. When each worker is assigned a specific task suited to their specific skills, the use of their time and skills is maximized.

This results in fewer idle workers and less wasted time and resources (Boyce, 2021).

5. Cheaper Products

There are a few reasons why division of labor can drive down prices. Firstly, task allocation can lead to increased productivity.

This means that businesses can produce more products in a shorter amount of time. As the number of products available in a market increases relative to demand, price decreases (Francois, 1990).

Secondly, the division of labor often leads to economies of scale. This is when the cost of production decreases as the volume of production increases.

This can happen because, for example, a manufacturer is able to negotiate with its suppliers to buy goods more cheaply in bulk, or the cost of transporting an individual item becomes cheaper en masse.

Finally, as workers become more specialized in their tasks, they are able to work faster. Manufacturers no longer need to hire artisan-level workers to complete a task.

Because these workers are less skilled individually, they demand lower wages than those who are skilled, allowing a manufacturer to gain a greater margin on their products (Francois, 1990).

6. Higher Wages

Although the division of labor can lead to the hiring of lower-skilled and lower-paid workers, the wages of each of these workers can increase as a result of this process.  When workers are able to perfect their technique and work more quickly, their value to the company increases.

In addition, as companies experience increased productivity and profitability, they can afford to share these gains with their employees in the form of higher wages (Francois, 1990).

7. Innovation

Additionally, the division of labor can lead to a greater variety of products being produced. This is because each worker is specialized in a particular task and so can contribute to the production of a range of different products.

This greater capacity to create different types of goods incentivizes manufacturers to develop a broader range of goods, increasing competition and ultimately innovation (Francois, 1990).

Disadvantages of Division of Labor

1. Boredom from Repetition

When workers are assigned the same task day in and day out, they can become bored. This is a particular problem when the task is simple and does not require much thought or skill.

Boredom can lead to absenteeism and turnover as workers seek out jobs that are more stimulating.

For example,  factory workers who are tasked with performing the same monotonous job — like screwing in the same screw to the same part of a toy — day after day often suffer from boredom and apathy.

This can lead to low productivity and poor quality products. Marx called this lack of a feeling of meaning from work as a result of its repetition alienation.

2. Interdependence and dependence

The division of labor can also create dependence on others. When workers are assigned specific tasks, they become experts in those tasks.

However, this can make them reliant on other workers to complete other tasks outside of their area of expertise (Schoenberger, 1988).

For example, if a worker is only responsible for putting the finishing touches on a product, they will be dependent on other workers to complete all the prior steps in the manufacturing process. If one of these workers is absent or does not do their job properly, it will disrupt the entire production process and the final product will be of poor quality.

The division of labor can also limit opportunities for advancement. When workers are assigned specific tasks, they become experts in those tasks. However, this can make it difficult for them to move into other positions within the company that require different skills.

For example, a worker who is skilled in assembling a particular type of widget may not have the skills necessary to design or sell the widget. As a result, their career path may be limited and they may never have the opportunity to earn a higher salary or improve their position within the company.

When they no longer work for the company they were trained for, they may find that their hyper specialized skills are not transferable elsewhere (Schoenberger, 1988).

3. Lack of Responsibility

When each person is just a small cog in a large machine, they can feel like their work is not important. This can lead to a lack of motivation and a feeling of disconnection from the company’s goals.

When a task fails, it becomes time-consuming to find out where exactly the line made the error. This simultaneously allows workers to take little responsibility for their lack of effort (Schoenberger, 1988).

When one person produces an output, it is easy to measure and  compare their work against others. When many people work on the same task, however, it is difficult to compare outputs and identify which workers are not working as hard as they could be (Schoenberger, 1988).

The Assembly Line

One of the most famous examples of division of labor is Henry Ford's assembly line for mass-producing cars. Ford's innovation was to break down the process of assembling a car into smaller, more manageable tasks.

In fact, he divided his car manufacturing process into 84 distinct steps. Each worker on the assembly line was responsible for completing just one task, such as putting on the tires or adding the seats.

This division of labor meant that each worker could become an expert in their particular task, and it also reduced the time it took to assemble a car (Royston, 2015).

This increased efficiency allowed Ford to reduce his retail prices from $850 ($25000 USD in 2022) to $300 ($9,000 USD in 2022).

While the assembly line increased efficiency and productivity, it also had some drawbacks. The workers on the assembly line often found their jobs boring and repetitive, as they had little control over the production process.

As a result, many workers left Ford's factories to find other work and even striked. Many other businesses replicated Ford's assembly line, division of labor model — including those in the food, garment, and electronics industries.

In the modern garment industry, for example, one worker may be responsible for cutting the fabric, another worker may be responsible for sewing the pieces together, and another worker may be responsible for adding the buttons or zippers.

This allocation allows for the more efficient production of goods across almost every industry (Boyce, 2021). One of the most famous examples of division of labor is Henry Ford's assembly line for mass-producing cars.

Ford's innovation was to break down the process of assembling a car into smaller, more manageable tasks. In fact, he divided his car manufacturing process into 84 distinct steps.

Each worker on the assembly line was responsible for completing just one task, such as putting on the tires or adding the seats. This division of labor meant that each worker could become an expert in their particular task, and it also reduced the time it took to assemble a car (Royston, 2015).

This increased efficiency allowed Ford to reduce his retail prices from $850 ($25000 USD in 2022) to $300 ($9,000 USD in 2022) .

While the assembly line increased efficiency and productivity, it also had some drawbacks. The workers on the assembly line often found their jobs boring and repetitive, as they had little control over the production process.

As a result, many workers left Ford's factories to find other work and even striked. Many other businesses replicated Ford's assembly line, division of labor model — including those in the food, garment, and electronics industries.

In the modern garment industry, for example, one worker may be responsible for cutting the fabric, another worker may be responsible for sewing the pieces together, and another worker may be responsible for adding the buttons or zippers.

This allocation allows for the more efficient production of goods across almost every industry (Boyce, 2021).

Domestic (Gendered) Division of Labor

The gendered division of labor is the allocation of tasks between men and women based on gender norms. This type of division of labor often results in women taking on more domestic responsibilities, such as cooking, cleaning, and child care.

In contrast, men are often seen as the breadwinners and are expected to work outside the home in paid employment. While the gendered division of labor has changed over time, it is still a common practice in many households.

In fact, research suggests that women spend approximately twice as much time on domestic tasks as men (Baxter, 2002). This unequal distribution of labor often results in women having less leisure time and fewer opportunities to engage in paid employment.

As a result, the gendered division of labor can reinforce gender inequality. Sociologists have argued that there is a narrowing of the gender gap in the domestic division of labor.

Young and Wilmott (2013) argue that this is because more women are in paid work and families became more symmetrical as both men and women needed to tend to children.

Another reason for this narrowing is the ‘commercialisation of housework.' Washing machines, cleaning devices, and fridge-freezers have reduced the amount of housework and the time needed to complete it.

The pandemic has also been thought to reduce the division of labor. While in 2014-2015, women did an average of 1 hour and 50 minutes more housework and childcare than men, this reduced to 1 hour and 7 minutes more during lockdowns (ONS, 2020).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, July 13). Division of Labour (Advantages, Disadvantages, and Examples). Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/division-of-labour-meaning.html

References

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Boyce, P. (2021). Division of Labor Definition.

Crossman, A. (2019). The Division of Labor. 

Durkheim, E. (1892). The division of labor in society. Free Pr.

ONS. (2020). Coronavirus and how people spent their time under lockdown: 28 March to 26 April 2020

Francois, J. F. (1990). Producer services, scale, and the division of labor. Oxford Economic Papers, 42(4), 715-729.

Littek, W. (2001). Labor, Division of. in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences

Royston, A. (2015). Henry Ford and the assembly line. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

Schoenberger, E. (1988). Multinational corporations and the new international division of labor: A critical appraisal. International Regional Science Review, 11(2), 105-119.

Smith, A. (1776). Wealth of Nations. 

Young, M., & Wilmott, P. (2013). Family and kinship in East London. Routledge.