Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Humans Have Always Specialised and Have Always Been Generalists

Luke Johnson writes in an article on the division of labour, ‘Let’s turn our hands to the portfolio life’, which contains the following:

Ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, modern societies have focused on the division of labour. We have become ever more specialist in our work – no one wants to be known as a jack of all trades, master of none. Today it is all niches. After all, the sum of human knowledge has expanded exponentially since Leonardo da Vinci’s day, when the concept of a Renaissance man with learning across all fields was valid. Now someone like that would be dismissed as a dilettante.”

Superficially, Luke makes a plausible point, but I doubt whether his own life conforms to the image he portrays of ever diminishing areas of hyper-specialisation of labour. You should read the article in full for a flavour of its background (including a conversation at a dinner-party), but I shall confine my remarks to the narrow focus of Luke’s image of the division of labour since Adam Smith’s day and with the understanding of what happened since in the economy and in the work roles of labour.

Smith was a moral philosopher, a discipline that included in the 18th century subjects as diverse as Natural Religion, Ethics, Jurisprudence and Political Economy with, as background, a thorough classical education and an ability to deliver university lectures in fluent Latin (and, for students, to understand them).

These subjects are now separate disciplines, and within each subject there are many sub-divisions, and sub-sub-divisions. But Luke should note that to become proficient in any of the sub-divisions it is necessary for the individual to become proficient in the discipline as a whole. Nobody becomes a specialist by first becoming a specialist.

I suggest that the same condition applies to him, as well as the rest of us. Add to this the fact that many people, increasingly the majority, change their jobs and work functions more than once in their working lives. Moreover, they have ‘lives’ outside their work: interests, hobbies, crafts, activities, home, and families and friends. They have access to media sources (the Internet, TV,) that widen their scope of knowledge from their narrow jobs at any one moment.

Also, with technological change at the current rate, their jobs change even when their employer doesn’t. The tv business (Luke is something in UK Channel 4) has changed dramatically in the past working life of the average employee specialist in media business and will continue to do so. Many specialists change employers too in the same business, or come into it from different businesses. They have different age experiences and different life experiences, and move about different geographical locations. And the life environments around them change, including new governments, new products, new concerns and myriad new events, some of which affect them.

We are all ‘jacks-of-all-trades’. And the division of labour, which Smith wrote about in Chapter 1 of Wealth of Nations, has been a major cause of there being job opportunities (more jobs!) for more people, without which the human species would have remained at around the population levels of the few hundred thousand that populated the Earth before our hunter-gatherer forebears discovered the alternatives of herding animals and practising agriculture.

Incidentally, Luke, the division of labour began a long time before Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. In pre-history in fact. It's always been part of the human condition and it is not a burden on modern society only. Specialisation was rampant in the most primitive of human societies, as was the 'propensity to truck, barter, and exchange'. We did not move from clones of each other to specialists only in the 18th century.


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