Many Americans working from home are having a tough time drawing a line between work and their personal lives, which is a contributor to the burnout people are grappling with. Anthropologist James Suzman, in a new book out next week, takes a step-back look at that line between work and leisure since life began on earth.
Reading Work: A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, there are moments where you might be envious of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their primary work consisted of foraging for food, and in some cases took just an hour or two each day, leaving them ample time for other pursuits. It’s not quite Tim Ferriss’s four-hour work week, but it’s close.
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“For 95% of our species’ history, work did not occupy anything like the hallowed place in people’s lives that it does now,” Suzman recounts. Why did that change? And what can it tell us about ourselves? Work provides some answers.
In large part, the change in how humans think about work dates to the shift to farming from hunting and gathering starting around 12,000 years ago. Farmers who work harder are generally rewarded with better outcomes, and in many areas subsistence farming takes more effort than hunting and gathering. The seasonality of farming and fickleness of harvests incentivized people to accumulate and store food and other goods. It also weakened practices of sharing food in the moment it was hunted that reduced inequality among members of communities. Farming effectively drove inequality, and so it’s not surprising then that the history of farming involves humans subjugating each other based on race and class.
The “dignity of work” is a central consideration in many discussions today about economic policy, from stimulus measures to universal basic income. Surveys suggest that a majority of Americans are unhappy in their jobs. Yet life ceases to have the same meaning for many adults without work at its center. Suzman cites several factors behind this, including “the culture of work that has become so deeply ingrained in us since the agricultural revolution.” He continues: “This is a culture that makes us intolerant of freeloaders and canonize gainful employment as the basis of our social contract with one another even if many jobs don’t serve much purpose other than keeping people busy.” (p. 381.)
And there’s the further possibility that the instinct to work is an evolutionary legacy of our species. Like birds Suzman describes who build elaborate structures that aren’t always necessary, “so humans, when gifted sustained energy surpluses, have always directed that energy into something purposeful.” Indeed, in some cases, more work is considered more desirable. As Suzman recounts, Kellogg’s workers had 30-hour work weeks starting in the 1930s. But in the 1950s, three-quarters of its factory staff voted to return to 40-hour weeks. They wanted to earn more money to buy things.
Here are some other central concepts from the book:
- It can be hard to define what work is. We think of some of the same tasks we perform as work in one context, and leisure or play in others. Hunting a deer, for example, might be work in some cases but leisure in another. Suzman comes up with a broad definition for work: “purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end.”
- The history of work is the history of harnessing and applying energy, starting with the single-celled organisms that likely harvested energy from reactions between water and rock.
- The trait of being industrious can be thought of as compliance with the law of entropy. Entropy is constantly at work distributing energy evenly in the world—just as milk spreads out evenly when poured in your coffee. Put simply, we gather energy in food and then expend it back into the world through our work—and that expending of energy, such as through heat we give off when we work, contributes to a smoother distribution of energy in the world. I find this somewhat mind blowing.
- Work has shaped our physical development. Humans’ use of tools favored evolutionary traits such as dextrous hands, arms and shoulders suited for throwing projectiles, and fine motor skills. (p. 80)
- Cities played a critical role in the development of how we think about work. In cities for the first time, people weren’t focused directly on procuring the energy they needed to survive. They developed specialized professions—records from ancient Rome, for example, describe 268 different career paths. These professions also contributed to our attachment of identity and meaning to work, as people formed communities around their trades. That continues to this day. “Many of us not only spend our working lives in the company of colleagues, but also a fair portion of our lives outside of the workplace in their company too,” Suzman notes. (p. 292)
- Suzman suggests that as a society we don’t need to work as much as we do. He says he aims “to diminish our…unsustainable preoccupation with economic growth.” In doing so, he’s challenging the economic concept of “scarcity,” which assumes that people have infinite wants and limited resources—and satisfying those infinite wants drives people to work. Suzman offers his study of the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of southern Africa as evidence that prior to the arrival of farming many humans could be satisfied with just a few hours of work each day, and they thought in terms of abundance rather than scarcity.
- Suzman is also aware that automation threatens to reduce the need and opportunity to work. He doesn’t have any profoundly new response to this, other than noting the perils of economic inequality automation accentuates and the fundamental connection humans have to doing some amount of work.
To be sure…
- Suzman touches on class, slavery, and inequality. But he focuses barely any attention on the gender and racial dimensions of work over human history—when in fact work has been deeply characterized by discrimination and oppression based on race, gender, and class.
- Suzman’s Work is an eclectic shift from your typical economics or management text. The writing is great, and the book is a tour de force survey beginning with the creation of life, and analyzing the views of figures ranging from Hesiod to Joseph Conrad and Adam Smith.
- Suzman is most at home in the archaeological and anthropological record, and his writing there is more distinctive and confident than his discussion of 20th century economic history.
- The deep history of work takes you many unexpected places, some of which seem tangential. This passage is representative of much of the [beginning of] the book: “Humans never win in a short sprint when they are charged by a lion or pursue an antelope. But they are hairless and can sweat. As bipeds with long, easy strides, they are capable of running far and of keeping a steady, unrelenting pace for hours if necessary.” Fascinating, but not exactly Good to Great.
Memorable anecdotes and trivia:
- The term “work” was first introduced by Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, a 19th century French mathematician and scientist obsessed with billiards, to describe the force needed to move an object such as a billiard ball. (p. 25)
- Species that are “eusocial” are highly collaborative and form intergenerational social communities. Besides humans, mole rats are the only true eusocial vertebrate species. (p. 57)
- “Our brains only constitute 2% of our total body weight but they consume around 20% of our energy resources.” (p. 104)
- The Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers have a practice of insulting any meat a hunter brings back, so the hunter doesn’t think of themselves as superior to others. “We always speak of his meat as worthless,” one Ju/’hoansi man explained. “This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” (p. 163)
- A complex of buildings, passageways, and other constructions at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey dating from around 10,000 BC is “the first unambiguous evidence of a society in which many people had something resembling full-time highly specialized jobs.” (p. 202)
- Much of the basic vocabulary of finance in European languages comes from livestock farming, in part because animals were expected to reproduce and thus generate more wealth. The word “capital” is derived from a word for a “head” of cattle. The word “fee” similarly comes from a Proto-Germanic and Gothic word for cattle. (p. 252)
- “We work to live and live to work and are capable of finding meaning, satisfaction, and pride in almost any job: from the rhythmic monotony of mopping floors to gaming tax loopholes. The work we do also defines who we are; determines our future prospects; dictates where and with whom we spend most of our time; mediates our sense of self-worth; molds many of our values; and orients our political loyalties. So much so that we sing the praises of strivers, decry the laziness of shirkers, and the goal of universal employment remains a mantra for politicians of all stripes.” (p. 2)
- “By giving our ancestors more leisure time, fire simultaneously breathed life into leisure’s conceptual opposite, work, and set our species off on a journey that would lead us from foraging in forests to the factory floor.” (p. 121)
- “Wants may be easily satisfied either by producing much or desiring little.”—Marshall Sahlins (p. 143)
- “Never before in human history have there been 7.5 billion people each capturing and expending roughly 250 times the energy that our individual forager forebears did.” (p. 405)
- “Where foragers, with their immediate-return economies, invested their labor efforts to meet their spontaneous needs, and farmers, with their delayed-return systems, invested theirs to support themselves for the following year, we are now obliged to consider the potential consequences of our work over a much longer time span. One that recognizes that most of us can expect to live longer than at any time in the past and that is cognizant of the legacy we leave our descendants.” (p. 406)
The bottom line is that Suzman brings a remarkably different perspective to questions around why we work, and what we can expect if automation progressively strips us of our jobs. An important omission: he leaves out race and gender as central to shaping the history of work.
One takeaway is that human culture has evolved since at least the advent of farming to value work. And while the pursuit of wealth and consumption has led to overwork, people are generally not currently inclined to live lives primarily of leisure. Most Americans aren’t especially happy with the jobs they’re in. That’s a real problem that we all could think about more—and Work provides very useful context for doing so.
You can pre-order Work at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.
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