I’ve started to think more about how, beyond individual choices and stories told to ourselves, society can facilitate more fulfilling lives not centered around jobs. There are many aspects of this on which I still don't have a strong opinion. Of those, my feelings are most bipolar regarding how much we should encourage division of labor (or “specialization” in one skill or activity–I use the terms interchangeably).
All of my economics teachers preached division of labor as a virtue, often through the thought exercise of whether Michael Jordan should mow his lawn or pay someone else (say, me) to do it. Michael Jordan is definitely better than me at basketball, and chances are that he’s also fitter for mowing lawns. Nonetheless, this philosophy holds that it’s better for society (and his pockets) if MJ pays me to do a relatively worse job on his lawn so that he’s free to focus on basketball, his “comparative advantage” (ie. what he does better than anyone else by the widest margin).
Proponents of this theory also apply it to whole countries: some nations should focus on producing cash crops, others on manufacturing cars. It’s inefficient for overall global wealth if every country tries to do both.
I must admit that dividing tasks has undeniably freed and enriched most humans. If we tried to provide all of our necessities for ourselves, we’d be restricted to subsistence farming–a precarious lifestyle marked by suffering that doesn’t strike me as particularly fulfilling to the spirit (no shade against those who choose that path–that’s just how I see it from afar).
However, if maximizing revenue isn’t our only goal and we value a complete experience of human existence, division of labor comes with noxious psychological and spiritual effects. Mainly, it limits people to fragments of themselves. When people engage exclusively in one way of thinking (or in even more tragic industrial cases, one way of moving), they tend to identify only with that narrow experience and “outsource” everything else to others.
I see this in starkest terms at advertising agencies, where departments are literally named after thinking modes (“creative,” “strategy”) that humans engage in naturally, but which the industry labels as the exclusive lane of a select few. It’s shocking how quickly people, after being grouped into other departments, turn off their creative and strategic thinking. Most will defer even the most basic thoughts of this nature to the “specialists,” from fear of being caught exercising these disciplines without the permission of an official title.
And when they do provide a minimal opinion on the matters, they tend to begin by apologizing and caveating with the self-concept of “I’m not creative”—as if they’ve never in their life doodled a sketch, or written a heartfelt birthday card, or curated a bitching party. Not only do I find this sad, I also think it hinders the quality of our work. But even if you disagree with me, you must admit that the speed and dominance with which outside labels become our inner lived reality is awe-inspiring.
I think a lot of people viscerally feel this noxious side-effect of specialization and yearn for something else. I notice this among antiwork and “future-of-work” influencers alike, many who preach a new age of professional wholeness: a market where our value comes from the combination of all our passions and quirks, not just one. There’s even Polywork, a LinkedIn alternative with the goal of allowing people to showcase (and presumably, sell) their varied interests beyond their one job title.
But though I love that aspiration (I consider the pressure to reduce yourself to a single, focused, hireable brand to be violent), it’s still not apparent to me how this new paradigm is supposed to function. I’ve yet to encounter a hiring manager who doesn’t look at too many interests and skills with suspicion. Two years into its existence, Polywork itself feels like LinkedIn. Maybe it has more postings for side-project collaboration and less cringey work-humper screeds (that has to be worth something), but people’s profiles still lead with reductive job titles and executive summaries.
While I’m highly optimistic about humanity’s ability to shift its own culture, we have a long way to go before we let go of specialization. I think the fundamental issue here is that complexity takes a lot of energy to mentally process, and most people don’t want to spend time figuring out how to fit multifaceted people into their projects. They’d rather line up one person to one skill and switch them in and out like machinery, even if it means hiring more people.
(This is apparently an issue in research too–if an area of study gets too broad and varied, researchers become too overwhelmed by the understanding needed to collaborate with each other. So they tend to cordon off fields into separate, neat specialties that don’t interact as a larger body of knowledge even though they could, as a result hurting overall public production of knowledge and new insight.)
Michael Jordan benefited materially by prioritizing developing his basketball self over his other selves. Whether he benefited holistically (and whether we should encourage more of this, especially for non-outliers like the rest of us) is still an open question to me.
Clearly, the best balance is somewhere in the middle, an arrangement where we collaborate with each other via specialized roles to make our collective lives freer, but where we have enough flexibility to not reduce ourselves to one (or even two or three) ways of interacting with the world. Maybe this means we eventually figure out “polywork” cultures that allow individuals to have a wider variety of roles.
Or maybe it simply means drastically reducing our time “at work” (ie, our time reduced to small fragments of ourselves) to the bare minimum. Maybe leisure, when you think about it, is that time where you get to be a whole human, its function (if true leisure should even have a “function”) to keep your not-in-market-demand selves from withering away.
At a country-level, I often think about how service, tech, and industrial economies are so disconnected from nature–how clueless the average person (myself included) is about the plants and animals that nourish them. Even though I have no desire to work the land to feed myself, at some human level, that disconnection cannot be good.
Very insightful article!
I'm all too familiar with the negative effects of adopting this way of thinking. It was my time in the military that hammered it into me. We even had names for it at my school -a military school-.
If you were a "techey" major you excelled at engineering and detailed fields.
"Fuzzy" majors were everything else: humanities, English etc.
I self-identified and was labeled early on as a "fuzzy" major, outsourcing technical thinking to others who I felt at the time were better suited to do that type of work.
Looking back there was definitely a social class system going on at my school thanks to these labels. Techey majors were the pride and joy of the institution (it was an engineering school after all). Fuzzy majors were less respected and were labeled as "easier". While that's probably true to some degree, it was an early example of what you're writing about in this piece.
We get labeled, then we self-label, reducing our capacity, willingness, and ability to pursue work and thinking in domains that "aren't our thing" or that "we're bad at". It's sad to see, because the truth is we all have the capacity to understand anything.
No we won't all be the MJ equivalent in every field, but there's a freedom in owning the fact that you *could* given enough time and the proper conditions, become highly proficient or knowledgeable at any skill, in any domain.
Ever since I took ownership of that, my life has dramatically changed for the better.