Hunter-gatherers worked 15-hour weeks. Why don’t we?
“James Suzman is an anthropologist who has spent the last 30 years living with and studying the Ju’hoansi people of southern Africa, one of the world’s enduring hunter-gatherer societies. And that project has given him a unique lens on our modern obsession with work.
“As Suzman documents in his new book, ‘Work: A Deep History From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots,’ hunter-gatherer societies like the Ju’hoansi spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs despite being deeply impoverished by modern standards. But as we’ve gotten richer and invented more technology, we’ve developed a machine for generating new needs, new desires, new forms of status competition.
“So this is a conversation about the past, present and future of humanity’s relationship to work and to want. We discuss what economists get wrong about scarcity, the lessons hunter-gatherer societies can teach us about desire, how the advent of farming radically altered people’s conceptions of work and time, whether there’s such a thing as human nature, the dangers of social and economic inequality, the role of advertising in shaping human desires, whether we should have a wealth tax and universal basic income, and much more.
“Historically speaking, we live in an age of extraordinary abundance. We have long since passed the income thresholds when past economists believed our needs would be more than met and we’d be working 15-hour weeks, puzzling over how to spend our free time. And yet, few of us feel able to exult in leisure, and even many of today’s rich toil as if the truest reward for work is more work. Our culture of work would be profoundly puzzling to those who came before us.”
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that technology and productivity would advance so far over the next century that his grandchildren would be able to work 15-hour weeks to fulfill all their material needs and wants.
Keynes was half-right. We have far surpassed Keynes’s bold technology predictions. And yet we work longer hours than ever before.
Klein and Suzman say we work so hard because the economy isn’t just a machine for filling needs — it is, equally importantly, a machine for creating desire.
People in Keynes’s time didn’t spend money on iPhones or streaming media subscriptions or health insurance.
To find people working 15-hour weeks, you have to look backwards — tens of thousands of years backward — to hunter-gatherer societies.
The hunter-gatherer secret is that they’re not enhancing productivity. They’re regulating demand. They share wildly and freely. If you have something, somebody else can ask you for some and you are required to give it to them. Accumulating too much was considered bad form. Bad for the community.
Hunter-gatherer societies proved extraordinarily resilient, carrying the human race on foot from a small spot of Africa to every continent, from the hot deserts to the Arctic.
Of course there are almost no hunter-gatherer societies left today, and so you might argue that our civilization is far superior to that model. And yet hunter-gatherer cultures dominated for 300,000 years, while all of civilization has only lasted a bit more than 10,000 years — a very small fraction of that time. And it’s unclear how much longer civilization will last.
Can we achieve the best of both models?