Earning Our Daily Bread

Did early humans really have it easier than we do?

Michael Lokner (Flickr/lokner)
Michael Lokner (Flickr/lokner)

Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman; Penguin Press, 464 pp., $30

Anthropologist James Suzman spent 20 years studying the Khoisan, specifically the Ju/’hoansi, a nomadic tribe whose territory spans the borderlands of Namibia and Botswana. In his 2017 book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushman, he noted that the Ju/’hoansi sustain an “unyielding confidence” that nature will provide for them, a confidence so sturdy that they have no need to store or preserve food, let alone prepare for scarcity. Far from being nasty, brutish, and short, their well-lived lives of simplicity and generosity offer evidence that the self-imposed rat race of “civilized” humans was made necessary not by our actual needs but by our endless wants. While pleasant to imagine, this notion—known among anthropologists as the “original affluent society” theory—has rightly come under fire by critics who complain that it relies on a definition of work that is far too narrow and ignores the high incidence of mass starvation and early mortality in tribal societies.

In his latest book, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, Suzman offers a beautifully written argument in defense of this preindustrial utopia that nevertheless rests on an inherently shaky foundation. He traces our relationship with work down two pathways, the first “our relationship with energy,” and the second that of “human evolution and culture.” These avenues converge at four points in time: when humans mastered fire (roughly a million years ago), learned to grow and store food (roughly 12,000 years ago), began gathering in cities and towns (roughly 8,000 years ago), and fired up the first factories (early 18th century).

Each of these convergences altered the nature of work, but that point is almost incidental to Suzman’s book, which offers detailed insights into a litany of intriguing but barely related matters. He frolics from plant and animal life in the Kalahari Desert to 19th-century Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann’s mathematical models of entropy to the adaptive advantages of boredom. It seems churlish to gripe that these and other discursions have, at most, a slim relationship to work of the human kind. Suzman is a fluid and erudite storyteller, drawing on what seems an endless wealth of knowledge. And yet, dashing through captivating discourses on peacock tails and the life cycle of the black-masked weaver (a bird that compulsively dismantles and reconstructs its nest, presumably to burn off an “overabundance” of energy), and then pausing briefly to consider the lives of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor before running headlong into a lengthy consideration of the origin and purpose of prehistoric hand axes, one can’t help but question whether Suzman has a point to make beyond the one he put forward in his previous volume: namely, that humans have squandered and continue to squander the opportunity to enjoy life.

Although Suzman is an authority on matters anthropological, when he strays farther afield, his arguments grow slack. Most of us won’t need lengthy reminders of the plight of the Luddites, the horrors brought by the Industrial Revolution, or the centrality of fire and agriculture in the human story. Readers will often get the feeling of being led to conclusions not quite earned. For example, the idea that the introduction of factories “marked the beginning of many people viewing the work they did exclusively as a means to purchase more stuff” is at best a stretch. Before factories, most people labored on land not their own, as serfs and tenant farmers and slaves, hardly work from which they derived “meaning.” And his take on economics often reflects common misconceptions: for example, although Adam Smith certainly believed in the power of the marketplace, he did not advocate that markets be unfettered or unregulated.

Suzman’s gripe that for 200 years “labor movements and later trade unions would focus almost all of their resources on securing better pay for their members and more free time to spend it in, rather than trying to make their jobs more interesting and fulfilling” carries the whiff of the pampered academic so out of touch with common folk that he has no inkling that fewer hours and higher pay is precisely what the less exalted most desire. Indeed, this and similar missteps undermine an essential truth: for most of us, a job is not an expression of our passions but a way to survive that, with luck (and perhaps a union membership), might allow us the opportunity to pursue our real interests off the clock.

Suzman ends by invoking the vision of utopia described by British economist John Maynard Keynes, in which everyone’s needs are met and only fools do more work than is necessary. Keynes’s belief that automation would solve the “economic problem” parallels Suzman’s vision of a return to a more natural society, in which—like hunter-gatherers—we work only when we must, take only what we need, and share with our community so that all might have enough. Suzman closes on the whimsical admonition that we “loosen the claw-like grasp that scarcity economics has held on our working lives, and diminish our corresponding and unsustainable preoccupation with economic growth.” Sounds lovely, but one can’t help but ask: How do we get there? And by the way, what the heck does any of this have to do with the evolutionary cost of peacock tails?

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor of science journalism at Boston University and the author of four books, including, most recently, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change.


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