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In classical economics and all micro-economics labour (or labor) is a measure of the work done by human beings and is one of three factors of production, the others being land and capital. There are macro-economic system theories which have created a concept called human capital (referring to the skills that workers possess, not necessarily their actual work), although there are also counter posing macro-economic system theories that think human capital is a contradiction in terms.

Compensation and measurement

Wage is a basic compensation for labour, and the compensation for labour per period of time is referred to as the wage rate. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Other frequently used terms include:

  • wage = payment per unit of time (typically an hour)
  • earnings = payment accrued over a period (typically a week, a month, or a year)
  • total compensation = earnings + other benefits for labour
  • income = total compensation + unearned income
  • economic rent = total compensation - opportunity cost

Economists measure labour in terms of hours worked, total wages, or efficiency.

  • total cost = fixed cost + variable cost

Marxian economics

In Marxian economics, the aim of labour economics is to provide insight and guidance for the optimal allocation of cooperative human labour. However, this optimality is not simply viewed as a "technical variable" as in micro-economics, because workers are not simply a "factor of production", but human beings who organize themselves and each other. Forms of labour cooperation can be oppressive, irrational and exploitative, or they can be beneficial, rational, or effective. That is to say, labour economics has a political dimension insofar as different workers and employers have different interests. There is a workers' point of view and an employer's point of view.

Marxian economists argue that the reason why labour economics receives little attention is because it has become viewed as a management issue. But this may hide that a particular form of organizing labour has little to do with economic efficiency, and more with getting a high income from an activity. Marxian economists believe that ultimately the most desirable form of labour organization in the workplace is where workers manage themselves collectively, and elect managers where necessary; too much management is inefficient, it just means that people get high incomes for doing very little, capitalizing on specialized knowledge or qualifications.

Types of labour

Futher reading

  • Simon Head, The New Ruthless Economy. Work and Power in the Digital Age, Oxford UP 2005, ISBN 0-19-517983-8

See also


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