What would Adam Smith think about "vocations"?

productive work vocation

Janet Bufton and Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Would Adam Smith have thought of some kinds of work as vocational? 
This post is part one of a two-part series and was inspired by Rachel Ferguson’s question to @adamsmithworks. Part 2 is here

Did Adam Smith have an idea of work as a “vocation” rather than just a cost of production? It matters what one means by a vocation. 

The Latin root of vocation is “to call”. It’s often used to describe an activity a person feels or thinks they are “called” to do by a special part of themselves or something outside of themselves. It is more than a preference or merely liking and enjoying a thing. Occupations  such as performing religious or spiritual roles, teaching, and providing medical services are often described as vocational.

But there’s no clear evidence that Smith has a higher opinion of people who think of themselves as having vocations than he does of people who do their work without thinking there’s anything particularly special about it. He is quite critical of the clergy and of the professoriate, which people often think of as more vocational roles. He says that occupations such as physicians and lawyers should be well-rewarded and that the jobs should not be held by people of mean or low condition. 
We trust our health to the physician; our fortune and sometimes our life and reputation to the lawyer and attorney. Such confidence could not safely be reposed in people of a very mean or low condition. Their reward must be such, therefore, as may give them that rank in the society which so important a trust requires. The long time and the great expence which must be laid out in their education, when combined with this circumstance, necessarily enhance still further the price of their labour.
(WN, Bk 1, Ch X)
But in this case, Smith is advocating that a higher salary be used to “call” the right people to the work, and to encourage greater respect for that work, which would also encourage the best people to enter the profession. This isn’t the same as the work itself having a “calling”, which implies, rather, that someone might do the work so long as they could afford it, even if it paid poorly.

A broader idea of vocation might be: something that a person thinks they are particularly suited to do by education, temperament, or interests. Here, Smith would have much to add. 

The power of potential
Smith wrote a famous passage about a street porter and a philosopher. On one hand, it offers a warm fuzzy idea: that we are all quite similar when we are born, with nearly equal potential. It’s profoundly (especially for the time) egalitarian. But the passage also has a cold, spiky side, suggesting a sort of path-dependence based on previous choices, such that poor decisions early on might make us fit or unfit for certain activities later on.
The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. 

In this passage, Smith leaves open the possibility that one could choose whether to pursue life as a street porter or as a philosopher as a matter of a “calling” toward one profession or another. In fact, he leaves open the possibility that almost anyone “called” to a profession should be able to pursue it, since one’s eventual talents are the result of small differences in talents (if any) that widen through the interventions of fate, by others, and of continual experience. 

It seems worth noting, also, that Smith doesn’t obviously elevate one sort of work as more likely to be vocational than another. It is not clear that being a vain philosopher is better than a clear-eyed street porter, and we can easily imagine Smith defending both paths, not just the sorts of people who choose them.

The power of temperament
Smith also stresses that what a person does with their body will deeply affect their mind. In another famous passage, he describes the damaging effects of the finer and finer division of labor on the minds of workers, such as the workers described in the pin factory. He is concerned that their senses and minds will be dulled by their toil. 
In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But 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 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, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war…It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
(WN, bk V, Ch 1)
Smith’s forceful language here reveals how concerned he is about this problem. He believes that there should be public (not just private) efforts to mitigate the harm that comes from monotonous, abstract work. The idea of work as a vocation often carries with it an assumption that work itself provides a sense of meaning and purpose to those who perform it. If our inquiry about work as a vocation carries this implication, then it seems Smith would oppose the idea. He is instead calling attention to the fact that many occupations are not only not intrinsically fulfilling, they are actively harmful to the person engaged in them. 

In part two of this series, we'll talk about the power of interests, the power of sympathy, and what we might learn from Adam Smith's choices in his own life.

Want to read more?
Sarah Skwire's What Would Adam Smith Think of My Weekend? and Work, with a Side of Yarn
Elizabeth M. Hull's Adam Smith and Silas Marner: Heaps of Gold
Dear Adam Smith: An Antidote To Torpor