The Fundamental Human Relationship with Work

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Back in 1817, a Welsh textile mill owner turned labor activist named Robert Owen came up with the expression: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” That simple formula was a radical idea at a time when workers could spend nearly every daylight hour at their machines.

It was more than a century later that the U.S. Congress mandated the 40-hour workweek, one big way that still defines how we think about work and its share of our lives today.

But everyone knows that work is not like clocking in and out for a shift at a factory anymore. And whether it’s the gig economy or working alongside intelligent machines, we also now the future of work will be even more different than today.

Today’s guest says our modern notions of work and economy and productivity really did takes form during Industrial Revolution. But he says the human experience of working goes back much further – and that to understand the future of work, it can help to look way back throughout history and even prehistory.

James Suzman is an anthropologist, and the author of the book “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time.” James, thanks for joining us.

JAMES SUZMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, I want to ask you what got you interested in thinking about how humans think about work, this notion of work?

JAMES SUZMAN: Well, it’s – work is something that’s, we all, we grow up thinking of it as very much part of life and we think of all sorts of different ideas around work. That it is something virtuous. That laziness is a sin. That one has to work hard. If you work hard, you’ll succeed and so on and so on, and so on.

And like everybody else, I, certainly in the Western world, I was very much a part of that sort of paradigm of work. And then, as a result of all the hard work I did, I ended up being a doctoral student as an anthropologist and I chose to work with hunter gatherers in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia and Botswana. People are known as the Bushmen or the San, or more properly, Ju/’hoansi, was the group I worked with. And part of what was interesting about them was this was one of the last groups of people that had continued, that had hunted and gathered continuously, really since the origins of humankind.

CURT NICKISCH: You in your book, you called this the most, the hunter gatherer society, the most sustainable form of economic organization of people that we’ve ever known.

JAMES SUZMAN: Yes. Certainly and this group in particular, this group we now know, we now know that homo sapiens evolved, perhaps 300,000 years ago. And so this is a lot longer than we thought 20 or 30 years ago. And it makes us a lot more ancient than anybody things. And what we know is that actually one population group, this population group from whom the Ju/’hoansi are direct genetic descendants of, have been hunting and gathering in Southern Africa since the origins of homo sapiens.

And if you view success of a civilization as endurance of a time and stability, then this is unquestionably the most successful civilization in all of history. And what was interesting about them was that they had an extremely different set of economic ideas and ethos that resulted in them not only working a lot less than we did, but in many ways living far more sustainably than we do. And organically as a result of that having a very different set of attitudes about a whole series of other economic norms and practices that we often think of are part of our human nature.

CURT NICKISCH: So, what were those economic notions that have been so consistent for so long and are so different from ours today?

JAMES SUZMAN: Well, the first thing is that hunter gatherers, certainly in people’s minds when they think of stone age people, they tend to imagine that this was a life was nasty and brutish and short, to use the famous Hobbes phrase. That it was constant battle for starvation and survival.

CURT NICKISCH: Right. And then you killed one Mastodon and bragged about it for years.

JAMES SUZMAN: Yes. Exactly. Killed one Mastodon and then dodged being killed by another. And what we now know is certainly based on the study of more contemporary foraging societies, is that actually life wasn’t particularly nasty, brutish and short.

Sure they had the same kind of issues that effect really all premodern medicine societies. So, you had high infant mortality rates and so on. But really once you passed that leap of infant mortality, people lived very long and relatively prosperous lives. In fact, the average lifespan of hunter gatherers as far as we can tell, and it doesn’t apply the same everywhere. But for people like the Ju/’hoansi or the Hadzabe, another group of African hunter gatherers, their average lifespan exceeded that of pretty much everybody until mid-Industrial Revolution Europe.

And they were able to meet all their basic dietary and material needs on the basis of, in the case of the Ju/’hoansi, around 15 to 17 hours food collecting work a week. And then perhaps another 20 hours work which what you could call loosely all work, domestic work. So that’s sort of making fires, preparing food and so on and so forth. Which is roughly the amount of additional domestic work that all of us do. Excluding childcare and I showed others the Ju/’hoansi found the idea that us Westerners think of childcare as hard work, be just ludicrous and laughable.

So you know, they were able to meet their basic needs on the basis of very little effort. And what this did was it bred an economic system based not on their assumption of scarcity, not on their assumption that we’ve got to fight for everything all the time, but actually an assumption that the environment will always be able to provide for your basic needs on the bases of one or two hours spontaneous effort, whenever you need it.

So their economic system sort of was based on the fact, almost like how one might live in terms of food if you were, you know, lived within a sort of a massive Walmart store. And you just lived there and you just went and took off the shelves whatever you wanted, whenever you felt the need. And because of that, people didn’t put great store in hoarding surpluses or controlling surpluses. And at the same time they didn’t put a great deal of effort into controlling resources, did not really result in people having more power than the other.

So what you ended up with was a society that was extremely egalitarian. So the word that the anthropologist Richard Lee – the way he put it and, was they were fiercely egalitarian and that effectively at the same time they’re also extremely individualistic. In a sense these guys were the absolute libertarians. They accepted no laws, no rules, no leaders, or anything. And the net results of this was this society where property was not seen as particularly important and where people were fiercely egalitarian and anybody who tried to lord it over anybody else got mocked and ridiculed constantly.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean some of this economy had to change as people moved into different climates where you had to spend more of your time just sustaining energy and spend more work just staying warm for instance. But explain how the understanding of work changed when, as some of these societies became agrarian societies?

JAMES SUZMAN: Agriculture changed everything. You know, foragers basically harvested their food. They did, they had no, you know, it was up to the gods to produce the food and the gods did so, and some years they were more generous than others, but the food was pretty much always there. When you become a farmer, you in effect take responsibility for that production of food. And that produces a very different set of relationships, not just between you and the land, but also between you and other people.

And the critical thing with farming is that farming requires a lot of work before you get any return. So, where a hunter gatherer would just go out and simply harvest thing and get an immediate return for their effort, immediate return for the work they did, farming societies all had a delayed return.

And there’s another sort of really critical angle is that sort of labor incurs a sort of debt. So, because you’re not getting a return for the work immediately, it’s almost as if you are investing work into the land in the hope that the land gives you a return on that investment you’ve made six or nine months down the line.

Farming had first of all that great effect. The second thing about farming was that actually to be a good farmer requires a hell of a lot more work than being a forager. And you know, as any farmer will tell you also, any job left undone often has huge consequences that can skate down the line. So, if you don’t fix the fence post, you’re going to lose a herd of sheep and spend months chasing those sheep. It creates more work.

And then there’s another dynamic which is really important in terms of shaping how agriculture shaped our attitude to work. For hunter gatherers, when times were good, these were times to relax the most. So, Ju/’hoansi for example, there’s a nut called the mongongo nut and they had this great quote, why should we farm when there’s so many mongongo nuts in the world? And during the prolific season of mongongo nuts, people worked less. So, when the season was great, people spent less effort working and more time playing and on leisure.

By contrast with farming, when the seasons are good, that’s when you work the hardest. You work the hardest to try and sustain and maintain that surplus. When you’re dependent on a crop of barley and some, you know, a herd of goats, you’ve effectively got eggs in one basket. And you live constantly, a drought, a flood, a frost, a blight and a plague away from potential famine.

CURT NICKISCH: How did that change our understanding of labor?

JAMES SUZMAN: Well, it, in the first instance it made a virtue of labor. So, labor became, there was a clear correspondence in agricultural societies, certainly at a subsistence farming level between those who worked hardest and those were more likely to survive risks.

The second issue which is the other critical one was actually in a societies where you had this kind of risks, scarcity became a real and fundamental issue. The threat of scarcity existed everywhere. So, people started to work very hard to accumulate and protect surpluses. And societies began to organize themselves and politics began to organize itself around the maintenance, control and often taking of people’s surpluses in order to provide that kind of long term protection.

So, suddenly you ended up with people expending more effort and energy, not just on producing surpluses to survive, but then battling one another potentially competing for one another with those surpluses. And out of those came lots of the economic norms and systems and ideas that actually sustain our economy today. This is, you know, this is where the idea of economics as the science of understanding how we distribute scarce resources came about. It’s a function of agriculture, agricultural revolution and the need for surpluses and really the fear of famine.

CURT NICKISCH: Of course the Industrial Revolution came out of agricultural societies. Is our understanding of work today fairly or unfairly so deeply rooted in this Industrial Revolution and the formation of our economic thinking at that time?

JAMES SUZMAN: Well, I would say it’s unfairly rooted. I mean we’re sitting on a series of economic norms that are, were great for agriculture and that we’re in a sense documented based on that accumulated knowledge, but which immediately began to become undone during the industrial revolution. Ideas that have become over time, much less pertinent, the more productive that we have become through industrialization.

So, suddenly this way of thinking empowered us to industrialize and empowered mass production. And, but at the same time it undid the economics of it. In many ways I think actually a better way of understanding what real economics of behavior now is to probably go back to hunter gatherers because we live in an era of such an astonishing and unprecedented abundance. Materially that’s actually this idea that we have, we valorize scarcity is something that really for most of us is not a reality.

And you know, we think, I mean an example I keep thinking of is in this COVID recession that we’re in, the biggest decline in economic growth in the U.K.’s, certainly since anybody’s been able to document it in U.K. history, but compared to the Great Depression when people were queuing outside soup kitchens, in this the great COVID depression, we’ve been given, incentivized by government to go and eat at fancy restaurants. And so that’s where the sort of viscerality of the scarcity, it just doesn’t, this is a, this is about trying to keep the steroidal abundance going rather than encountering real scarcity. And where there is scarcity at the moment, it’s really a problem of distribution, not supply.

CURT NICKISCH: Why when we are so productive, why is it that we still keep working as much as we do and work so heavily?

JAMES SUZMAN: Well, I think firstly I view it as an anthropologist, which is we are cultural creatures. We like certainty in life and we’re in a sense programmed by circumstances. We are what we’re born into, incredibly plastic brains. I mean it literally gets hardwired, our habits, our beliefs, our processes – you know, it really is why you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. A part of it is habit and culture. An established culture norm.

But then you can also take a step back from that and say well what are these norms? Because of course for people like the Ju/’hoansi and the hunter gatherers, they had cultural norms too. They were just different ones. What I find very interesting is to look at J. K. Galbraith, his Affluent Society, in that, you know, he wrote that book when he was a professor at Harvard and he effectively argued that he, that U.S. had already reached that economic promised land. That the U.S. riding the post war economic boom. And he said he was already observing and noticing the emergence of what he called a new class of worker. And this was people who chose work they loved rather than learn to love the work that they ended up getting.

People who just did work that fulfilled them. And he called that the new class. But he threw in one caveat. He said the caveat is, rarely effectively that you got a whole bunch of established growing vested interests in business. Trying to produce and compete with one another and sell stuff. And he threw the blame on, in effect, the, on the advertising agency in a sense. And with the advertising industry as sort of the peak of the industrial boom, of people trying to create needs that didn’t actually exist by effectively manipulating the public and so on.

So, Galbraith’s view in effect was that we develop this culture of consumption and that this entire sort of economic ecosystem emerged around it. And that is what has maintained in a sense this working culture that we have in some respects. Certainly when I got an upgrade in my iPhone from the previous one to the new one I’ve got, I can’t really tell much of a difference to be honest.

And there is this sort of sense of pointless upgrading and expenditure. And then of course there’s this think of what you’d call conspicuous consumption. You know, I’ll challenge anybody to be able to tell me the difference between a bottle of whisky that costs 30 pounds and a bottle of whiskey that costs 200 pounds in a blind taste test. And you know, but one has a great deal more symbolic capital than the other. And so, people start pursing these things and this is what happens when you’re in an era of incredible abundance.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s also an era of incredible wealth for some. And it’s also a time when we do see a future where machines and computers and machine learning, and robots will start doing many of the less pleasant and many of the more secure jobs that people have now.

There’ve been a lot of people forecasting what’s going to, what’s going to happen and also proposing different ways for, for societies to adjust to this. What do you make of what sort of being talked about now and what do you think needs to be talked about more?

JAMES SUZMAN: I mean it’s funny. When I look at that question of automation and increasing automation and its implications, I keep going back to Keynes in a sense, in that famous essay that he wrote. Keynes talked about how we have to recognize that automation spells the death of orthodox economics.

That’s effectively what he argued and it spells the death of orthodox economics because it spells effectively the end of scarcity and the end of the need for people to exchange labor and constantly with one another. And what he does say is he says, this will bring about an extraordinary change in morals and how we organize ourselves morally and socially. And I think that is the big leap that we’re going to have to come to terms with.

So, you know, you’re already seeing this manifest economically all over the place, in particular sort of my former industry which was mining – is hugely capital intensive. These generate very few jobs. They’re capital intensive because they require clever, sophisticated big machinery. And as you develop in an economy where machines are doing all the things, actually suddenly owning those machines becomes in a sense, I think this sort of interesting analogs in terms of looking at how slave owning societies economies were organized.

In a sense it means work becomes something that can be possessed. So, people can’t work themselves out of poverty in those kinds of circumstances. You can work as hard, you can work three jobs at the bottom of the economic food chain and you’re never going to get as rich as the guy who’s working one morning a week as a successful investor. It’s, the correlation between labor – automation has undone any kind of illusion that is a direct correspondence between labor and wealth.

And I think it means we’ve got to start embracing with and engaging with these really quite big social issues. I of course, why I’m happy that there’s so much discussion on it is that I don’t think anybody knows the answers. And I think often we resort instinctively to kind of tired historical analogies about whether it’s, socialism is bad and capitalism is good and all these kinds of crude stereotypes which were appropriate to maybe 100 years ago, but are no longer.

I think what we live in an era is where it’s incumbent upon us now to experiment. To use a hunter gatherer analogy as when first home sapiens went into the cold wastelands of Ice Age Europe, they had to feel their way through the environment. They had to trial and error to learn how to best organize themselves in order to survive and cope with these changes.

And I think we have to embark on a very open-minded era of experimentation where there’ve never been this many people in the planet. We’ve never had the kind of extreme environmental constraints that we have now based on carbon and so on. And I think it requires a sort of an acknowledgement that we don’t have the answers, but we do know, we do have an understanding of what some of the dynamics are and what some of the potential risks are.

And I think there’s some really good ideas coming out in different places. There’s been a great discussion on universal basic income and which has been happening in strange places, you know, governments talking very seriously, whether it’s Finland or New Zealand for example, about the four day week and coming into manifestos. And I think these are all things that we have to experiment, we have to try them on like new clothes and then if they don’t fit, we have to discard them and try something new. But we can’t know until we try them.

CURT NICKISCH: As an anthropologist what would you recommend to a manager, a leader in an organization to workers nowadays when it comes thinking about work differently? We’ve talked a lot about how as a society we have these choices ahead. What would you say to individuals?

JAMES SUZMAN: It’s a question that I thought a great deal about and it’s one that again, I try and bring this deep historical lens to and also of course my own lens, having been senior management in a mining multinational for a number of years. And what is interesting is how deeply evolutionary history tells us there’s a reason why we feel good when we do a good job. Why we get real pleasure when we execute a skill fantastically.

I mean you know, I keep going back. I can’t remember his name offhand, but there’s for example when Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency movement was taking off, one of his big opponents, the head of this sort of coalition of basically small manufacturers’ unions in New York, you know, who was a cigar maker. His objection to Winslow Taylor was not that this efficiency would be bad for business or anything, but it was that it robbed people the joy of making, of doing, and in his case being a cigar maker.

We are a species born to work. We are the purposeful species. We are unsatisfied when we don’t have something to do. Even our leisure involves work you know. Anybody who plays half the laborious computer games on an Xbox or a Playstation. Actually most of your time you’re spending running around mimicking work in real life. Whether it’s hoarding diamonds or what have you.

And lots of us spend our leisure money on doing what hunter gatherers thought of as work. For hunter gatherers hunting and fishing was work. For us it’s an extremely expensive hobby. That many of us work 50 weeks a year so that we can get one week of fishing and hunting.

And I think there is. I think when we look in these broad historical times, what there is, the work that’s done best in the world and you know, our history of for example, civilization and objects is a history of things, work and love in a sense. I mean if you look for example, at the arc in St. Paul’s Cathedral, it’s a, you know, you can sense the kind of joy, satisfaction and completion people had when they produced it and made it. And that is really what I’d say, is that give people work that somehow gives them a sense of meaning and ables them to sort of bring and harness that extraordinary creativity and purposefulness that makes humans so interesting and capable.

CURT NICKISCH: James, this has been super interesting. Thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about this.

JAMES SUZMAN: It’s been my pleasure, a real pleasure to talk.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s James Suzman, anthropologist and the author of the book, “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time.” This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.


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