Monday was Labor Day, which means besides the BBQs and end-of-summer getaways, many of us took a moment to reflect on the gains won by labor organizing. The eight-hour workday, safe work conditions, and an end to child labor all came through union struggles. Before these battles, things were pretty grim for the average worker, right?
If you go back one or two hundred years, the answer is certainly yes. During the Industrial Revolution, workers toiled 14 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes in dangerous conditions with no unemployment insurance or Social Security to fall back on. Compared with them, we're all a bunch of slackers.
Which might lead you to conclude we should be thankful for our current 40-hour workweek and accept it as a good deal by historical standards. Actually, no, argues anthropologist and author James Suzman in a recent Financial Times article (paid subscription required; hat tip to Adam Grant's consistently interesting newsletter).
In the long and fascinating piece, Suzman details his decades of research of African hunter gatherer societies, and uses his findings to argue that if you look over a much broader sweep of history, modern humans are weirdly workaholic. We would likely be happier and healthier if we put in a lot fewer hours.
Historically speaking, we're a bunch of workaholics
Thanks to high school history class, most of us think of the past in terms of hundreds or, at most, a few thousand years. But modern humans have been around for at least 300,000 years. And the anthropological evidence shows that, for the vast majority of that time, our ancestors were living pretty leisurely lives, Suzman reports.
"Our hunter-gatherer ancestors almost certainly did not endure 'nasty, brutish, and short' lives," he writes of seminal studies of the Ju/'hoansi, a hunter-gatherer group living in southern Africa. "The Ju/'hoansi were revealed to be well fed, content, and longer-lived than people in many agricultural societies, and by rarely having to work more than 15 hours per week had plenty of time and energy to devote to leisure."
With so much time to spare, our ancestors spent the rest of their days "on other purposeful activities such as making music, exploring, decorating their bodies, and socializing," says Suzman.
Back to the future of more leisure?
That sounds pretty nice. But what does it have to do with us?
It's unlikely many moderns would choose to give up Netflix and iPhones for huts, hunting, and more free time. Suzman argues that looking at the long sweep of history is important because it reveals our obsession with hard work arose in a very specific context, namely the early days of agriculture. At that time, the land could barely support the population, and a single unlucky event, like a drought or a flood, could lead to mass starvation. Hard work was essential to survival.
But that wasn't true for hundreds of thousands of years before and it's not true now. Hunter gatherers didn't face extreme scarcity, and thanks to technology, neither do we. We work way more than we need to in order to provide a decent living to everyone.
Why? Tons of smart people have weighed in on the puzzle, arguing everything from status signaling (i.e., everyone is busy all the time to prove how important they are) to inertia, rising inequality, and simple avarice. But whatever the reason, with more leaders starting to make noises in favor of innovations like the four-day workweek and universal basic income, the culture may be ever so slowly shifting toward a less work-intensive model.
What do you think? Could the shock of the pandemic help us rediscover the wisdom of our distant ancestors and shift our culture toward consuming and working less?