My first money-making scheme as a kid followed the same path as many others: mowing lawns. My friend John and I bought an old lawn mower and set out to make some money around the neighborhood. We didn’t get rich, but we got a good understanding of how business works.
My next two jobs were more factory-like, the first one with a sticker and label manufacturer where I would receive a tower of printed labels that were adhered with a backing glue bind and then have to count out a certain number and tear them off. It got boring rather quickly but the toxic fumes kept it interesting.
The next factory-like job was to make trophies at a trophy shop. It was a little more fun and somewhat more challenging, but after the first few weeks, the work was monotonous and repetitive. I was thankful for both jobs because they paid me, although the minimum wage of $4.15 at the time meant it wasn’t much!
In his book, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith describes this type of monotonous work as dangerous to the individual, but he also explains that this “division of labor” is what makes capitalism work. This is the very root of capitalism which has been significant and incredibly positive for our society. A majority of people in the western world live with easy access to utilities, food and basic wants and many luxuries thanks to capitalism.
As I moved on to my “professional” career after college, I realized the division of labor continues, but it’s instead called specialization. My first job was with a global consulting firm, Accenture, and they always pushed me to become “specialized” in a specific area, whether it was software like SAP or an area like software testing. This allowed them to easily plug and play needs in different projects… need a “testing” guy, go find the tester!
Maybe it was due to my short attention span or the fact I wasn’t smart enough to become a pure expert in the software world, but I didn’t like it. It felt dangerous to be pigeon-holed into one type of technology or specialty that could make me irrelevant when technologies changed.
There may have been another reason too, one I didn’t understand until I found this passage written by Smith:
“The uniformity of stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance, in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social and martial values.”
The division of labor is what has led to the significant surpluses of goods and labor that have allowed us to have it all, but it has also greatly impacted us as individuals. It’s up to each of us to decide if that impact is positive or negative as I know some people really love being the expert who’s specialized in their field.
Humans evolved through the millennia and survived by not being specialists. In the Ancestral Puebloan area where I currently live in Southeast Utah, if you weren’t successful at a varying number of trades, you couldn’t live. I’ll once again use Adam Smith’s words:
“In such societies the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity; and to invent expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people.”
Smith describes individuals in earlier societies such as hunger/gatherers as much more socially advanced and inventive. They had to do it all.
As populations increased and societies moved beyond “tribes”, specialization of labor naturally happened more and more. You no longer needed to be able to do it all as your neighbor was a farmer and you became the butcher. With the industrial revolution, the specialization of labor became even more prominent as factories required individuals to do one job over and over and over.
Capitalism began to demand that we were more valuable as specialists than we were as generalists. If one person could become so specialized in a monotonous task such as cutting the pins in a pin factory, their speed was likely to increase and their mistakes decrease.
Straighten the wire, cut the wire. Straighten the wire, cut the wire. Straighten the wire, cut the wire. Straighten the wire, cut the wire. Straighten the wire, cut the wire. Straighten the wire, cut the wire. Straighten the wire, cut the wire. All in a day’s work.
Capitalism demanded that we essentially become robots or Homo Roboticus. No longer did we need to worry about the upcoming season and what it meant for our crops, the repair we need to make to our house or our shoe, or how we would protect ourselves from the neighboring tribe. We only needed to worry about straightening the wire and cutting the wire.
Smith recognized this dilemma over 250 years ago when he wrote his book (this was written in the book’s forward):
“Through capitalism we gain, but we also lose. The loss, Smith felt, was felt most among the lowest classes – his particular example was employees in a pin factory – whose cramped place in the chain of production leaves no room for the enlargement of the mind and spirit, which the freedom of commercial society should open up.”
But can we argue with the results? Should we be happy and agree that what’s good for the hive is good for the bee?
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. That’s the song that keeps going through my head as I write this, so it inspired me to go watch the original video and then read the lyrics… and I realized the Styx have it all figured out!
Kilroy is the main character in the song, and he’s placed in a futuristic prison for “rock and roll misfits” where robots do the menial jobs such as cleaning the prison and acting as prison guards. Kilroy kills a robot and hides inside the robot’s shell and escapes the prison.
The only way he could get out was by disguising himself as a robot…
It’s pretty amazing when you step back and look at all the things we had to do ourselves fifty years ago that we don’t have to do today. We can outsource most of our lives – laundry, yard work, car maintenance, investing, child rearing, shopping for groceries, house keeping and much more. It has supposedly made our lives so much easier and saved so much time… time that we can now dedicate to becoming more specialized in our careers, binge-watching entertainment and checking Facebook.
But even when I was working full time and putting in 60 hour weeks (and weekends), I still enjoyed getting outside and doing menial tasks such as mowing the lawn. Maybe it was a reminder of my simpler teenage days and my first job, or maybe it was fulfilling an inner desire to be more than just a specialist.