a blog about philosophy in public affairs

There is too much division of labour: Against all-or-nothing social roles

Marx might have been right, too strict a division of labour is making us worse off in an important respect: we cannot but fail to develop core human abilities, and this failure cannot but affect our sense of wellbeing, of being at home in the world. Not that we should, or could, fully undo the division of labour such that you and I can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” But is it really unavoidable, or good for us, to have to live by a radical division of labour where the main social roles are an all-or-nothing business?

Consider: you either enter politics, dedicating it a large amount of time, or you have virtually no say in any public affairs. You’re either a parent or someone who can have children in their lives only very sporadically and precariously. You typically either have a full-time job (for many over-engulfing) or an unsatisfying one, which you can all too easily lose, and which probably doesn’t pay enough to live. You’re either in a monogamous relationship, or else your relationship(s) are not socially sanctioned as serious, meaningful, worthy of protection – as marriage and civil partnerships are.

Yet, nobody has the time and energy to be, at once, a fully participating citizen, and a good full-time parent, and a competent full-time worker, and the kind of partner who can be present in every way for another human being. All these while mustering enough patience, attention and generosity to be a decent person. But most of us need work, engagement with the wider community, and loving relationships. So, many people are in frantic and constant rush to be all these things (usually leaving out politics, proper participation into which seems most hopeless to combine with filling the other roles.) The result is a lot of anxiety for those who think they have a shot at “having it all”, possibly depression for many who don’t, and quite a bit of exhaustion and disappointment for the vast majority of us.

Yet, must it be so? It is up to us to reorganise our world such that we can do things more communally, and to make it possible to take up more modest shares of these roles for those who would rather combine them. Some people, indeed, do something like this here and now: they get involved in grass-roots movements, go part-time in their jobs, share life and parenting with more people and live in polyamorous groups where several people are there for each other. But given the general structural constraints, these people are necessarily on the fringe, and come from a relatively privileged, fairly educated, materially well-off urban minority. Most could not afford such a lifestyle.

For this life to be available to all who want it, we’d have to change the structural constraints – laws regulating the political practices and institutions, working lives, legal parenthood and marriage and, at least as importantly, examine our own expectations. This would be a world of more modest aspirations – where we relinquish the power to exclude others from “our” beloved – children and adults – and where we don’t aim at the kind of status and power now associated with high-flying full-time jobs and party politics. A world closer, in spirit, to the Marxist utopia, where we could better enjoy our complex humanity. Or is it a mere illusion that we need all these various goods in order to be complete?

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Anca, thanks for this post! I have lots of sympathies for this idea (not only because of the advantages it might have for people to have more flexibility, but also for epistemic reasons: people would be less isolated in different epistemic silos in different social contexts, and have more diverse viewpoints…). I wonder how best to realize it, though. The most obvious institutional measures seems to be to cut working hours, so that people have more spare time to explore other roles to their own liking (they vary hugely among OECD countries, see here: https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS), and maybe to make it easier to do part-time work (which might, however, backfire in terms of gender relations…). But even in countries with relatively low working hours, you get such phenomena. I guess it has a lot to do with people obeying social pressures and feeling obliged to comply with norms that do not conform to their actual preferences. So the question would be how to change the social norms that determine how people see themselves in their roles. (This is not to say that this is the only problem; especially for people in low-paid jobs there may be no other options. But my impression is that lots of people who could afford to live differently don’t do it, for whatever reasons, and maybe they thereby contribute to the pressures on those in low-paid jobs…) How could one go about doing this, preferably in a way that does not unduly interfere in people’s lives?

    • Anca Gheaus

      Many thanks for this comment, Lisa. I agree that cutting working hours isn’t likely to go far enough by itself It’s very had to see how change can be brought about in non-paternalistic ways, given that people’s preferences are often endogenous. This is why I believe that changes in social norms must precede institutional change. Also, I suspect that many people have, in fact, conflicting preferences, and this may be the best entry point: it’s hard to acknowledge the contradiction between different preferences, because this conflicts with prevailing standards of rationality and maturity. (You want time with the people you love, and meaningful work, and political impact… and… and… You’re told to grow up and make your choices.) But once you’re ready to take these conflicts seriously rather than dismiss them as a sign of immaturity, you start to notice how they might be avoided given different practices and institutions.

  2. Hi Anca, I’m very sympathetic to a lot of what you say. I have a question regarding how you might see the possible trade-offs. One way to put it is to imagine that a straight choice between society giving space for communal living and giving space for highly specialised lives. I am not sure the choice is this stark, but it might be that it is difficult to create space for both to exist as genuinely viable options for most people. For example, as long as a certain number of people are free to specialise in certain professions, it is difficult for those who do not specialise to get into / stay in them. Then we would face a choice of which one to make ‘dominantly available’. I’d be interested to know if you would push for communal living in this context and, if so, what you think about the possible loses/costs in doing so?

    • Anca Gheaus

      You’re right Andrew, and thanks for this! I really don’t know about trade-offs, and even less so about the legitimacy of imposing particular trade-offs. Of course this is a disappointing answer. Note that the kind of division of labour I am deploring here doesn’t concern the tendency to specialise in one’s paid work, but rather the impossibility – for most of us – to adequately combine all the core social roles. In a world where this was possible, one could still specialise in her particular job – but spend less time at work overall. Now, it’s likely this would come with a loss in efficiency, which may or may not be made up for by the practical gains of a political life for which most individuals take some real responsibility.

      One possible worry that I don’t find very compelling is that such a world would come with less excellence (artistic, scientific, etc.): the average lifespan these days is generous enough to allow us to both fulfill some of our potential to contribute in this way and have time for other things. In other words, the loss in efficiency, if any, would affect the quantity, rather than the quality, of the social output. Do you find this plausible?

      • Thanks, Anca. Yes, I find that very much plausible. I would even suggest that a loss in efficiency is not inevitable. It might be that reducing working hours overall would result in a net increase in efficiency. I guess these are empirical questions, ultimately. But I certainly lean to thinking that these loses are neither inevitable nor, if they do occur, of greatest weight.

        I think the angle of my worry lies more in whether there is a trade-off between the freedom to pursue a wider range of lives and the freedom to specialise. If this trade-off does exist, I, like you, am not really sure how to measure/weight/arbitrate it, so your response is much the same I would have given. Perhaps it is something that would be interesting to investigate further.

  3. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you, Anca. I share your worries about these effects of the division of labour. I’m reacting a bit late, but could you say a bit more about the relation that you see between monogamy and the division of labour? It was not obvious to me. Thanks!

    • Anca Gheaus

      Hi Pierre-Etienne, a very fair point, thanks. The basic, tentative, idea of this post is that it’s regrettable that the most important social roles are usually available to us either as a full-time package or else in a very precarious form. If you go for the first option, it is hard to see how you can take on all of them. One of these roles is being a life partner – and the only protected relationship of this kind is marriage, sanctioning a monogamous, life-long association (at least, according to social norms that many find pretty coercive). Some philosophers – Elizabeth Brake for instance – suggested we disentangle the different functions of marriage and give legal protection to those that deserve it separately, rather than as a package. I assume, but may of course be wrong, that all these separate functions of marriage as we have it are being organised around monogamy. My turn to apologise for slow reply!

  4. Tomer Perry

    Nice article, Anca. I, like others, am broadly sympathetic to the basic analysis: we live in social circumstances that do not allow us to live up to all the commitments we have. Many people focus on the way the ability to live up to commitments – or enjoy benefits – is unequally distributed.
    The one point I want to stress – implicit in your argument – is that egalitarian democratic theory is particularly averse to distribution of labor, because of its elitist implications (some people may be career politicians and spend their lives in power while others will never make it). I believe that there are various ways in which people who aren’t as involved can still have influence, but I also think egalitarian theories need to articulate egalitarian visions that include division of labor and not just insist on broad participation.

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