The Intellectual Poverty of Late Stage Taylorism

What do you do?

To this common icebreaker, one is expected to respond with their job title. But I write, I think, I analyse, I research, I design, I create, I photograph and I develop, there is much more to my abilities than just ‘Mechanical Services Engineer’ or ‘Software Developer’. The intellectual poverty of late stage Taylorism has driven us into tiny little silos with exceedingly specific skills, debasing our general abilites and as a result we are losing the ability to consider things holistically or systemically.

A recent conversation with a recruiter demonstrated to me the depth of this rot. In the Taylorist style their role in a multinational corporation was shrunked down to recruiting only engineers for building services. Despite this, they had no understanding of the associated capabilities, nor any other roles which might use the same skills and abilities (nevermind my own wider oeuvre). Without even this level of understanding, they cannot have been capable of making holistic decisions on a candidate’s capabilities, even within their little area.


Demonstrating the depths of late stage Taylorism, their job had been reduced down to its most simple possible level – check how many X years of experience the candidate has at Title Y, then pass them on to an employer looking for Title Y and X years of experience. Their role was structured in such a way to reinforce this simplicity, with commissions for landing candidates in their tiny area, and seemingly discouragement from discussions with those in other areas. Not only is this narrow specificity endemic to recruitment and thus helps to enforce these narrow roles, but this kind of late stage Taylorism is present throughout our working society. Project management methods are built upon it. It is core to agile development and embodied in every overly specific job role.


Late stage Taylorism distills down the classic Taylorism into its most important element – tasks must be broken down into the smallest possible scale in a repeatable manner. The old Taylorism was applied only to factory work and other industrial, physical tasks, but late stage Taylorism applies this method to both intellectual work and indeed to the workers who complete it. This is done with the goal of efficiency, but has the side effect of treating workers as just cogs in the company machine, human resources that fit only into particular positions.


Workers’ creativity and the fresh ideas they may have to improve processes are discarded in favour of deference to authority or bureaucracy. Even intelligent, inventive folks are compelled to become mere repetive drones by this repellent method, which has no care for the individual. Yet, as our capitalist society prizes efficiency over all other values, late stage Taylorism has spread throughout it. In an effort to avoid machines taking our jobs, we have become automatons ourselves. This has has chilling effects on not just the creative and innovative potential of our workers, but the level of thinking and discourse across our society. As the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations:


The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging.


Much like the menial factory work Smith saw wasting the potentials of his countrymen in the 1700s, the menial repetitive work of late stage Taylorism is wasting the potentials of all of us, today. It is preventing the rise in intellectual engagement which would be expected by the increase in educational attainment and driving us to think small, within our own little boxes. There is no place within late stage Taylorism for cross-disciplinary ideas, holistic visions, or the kind of systemic analysis which illuminates greater truths. Indeed, this is contributing to the rise of the ill thought out reactionary politics of the conservative anti-establishment.


If we rigidly wrap a man in a straightjacket, he will be unable to break free. We cannot have a flowering of the human race without a rejection of late stage Taylorism.