Our work consumes us. But does it have to? Anthropologist James Suzman has spent decades living in the Kalahari Desert with one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer societies, and he’s concluded that our modern attitudes about work don’t mesh with the views held by our ancestors. For 95 percent of human history, we spent the bulk of our time doing… nothing.
So what changed? Today on the Next Big Idea podcast, James sits down with Next Big Idea Club curator Adam Grant to advocate for spending less time toiling away at labor we loathe, and more time working at things we love. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few of James’s most remarkable insights.
Hunter-gatherers had something on us.
I can’t speak for all hunter-gatherer ancestors for all time, but I can look at our contemporary hunter-gatherers and say that work creates us. Hunting and gathering seem to produce some very distinctive social forms as a way of making a living. And those social forms prioritize meeting short-term needs, not worrying a great deal about the future, not being hostage to the future. They were able to relax once they’d had their needs met; they organized their economies so that once their basic material needs were met, they took the business of leisure quite seriously. I think our hunter-gatherer ancestors had something on us. And so the question that I’ve asked is, “Why, when we have this great abundance, are we not all doing work we love?”
One person’s work is another person’s leisure.
Much of what we do for pleasure is actually work. I cook for pleasure. I fish for pleasure. These inversions of what is work and what isn’t are actually context-based, and that raises an important question: When we are collectively resourced to meet everybody’s basic needs, why aren’t we creating an environment that enables people to do the work they love, rather than try and learn to love the work they do? That, for me, is the crux of it. We have this extraordinary creativity within us, but instead, we’re funneling people into doing really quite miserable things most of the time.
“Why, when we have this great abundance, are we not all doing work we love?”
Cities gave rise to new kinds of work—and created new forms of identity.
With the Agricultural Revolution, you started getting food surpluses. And that surplus energy created the creative space for a whole series of different kinds of roles and, ultimately, the birth of cities. In every city, you see this instant efflorescence of different professions, skills, artisanship—and these things became forms of identity. Rome, for example, was organized around trade guilds. In places like India, it’s institutionalized; you are born into your job. And we saw that historically with many Western European populations, too, hence the names like “Smith” and so on. As soon as you got into cities, work became a matter of identity. When two people are working in a space—whether they are cleaners or butchers or shoemakers—it creates this kind of community of experience, and that produces a forge for identity.
It’s time to start experimenting.
An interesting thing over the last year has been the flexible working experiment. Businesses had been fiddling with it before the pandemic struck, but it was never done at sufficient scale to have any meaning. Now we’ve seen what works with it, and I think we’ve crossed a threshold—although that only applies to the small proportion of people who are knowledge workers. But I think if I’d been doing my corporate job, and I was spared that four hours of commuting a day—which was not only environmentally disastrous but also terrible for my sanity—I might still be doing it.
I’d like to see other experiments happen at a similar scale. A four-day week is an easy, quick one to do. In Spain, they’re launching a big state-wide experiment in the four-day week with a number of major businesses. I’ll be really interested to see how that goes. I would also love to see a big experiment in universal basic income. I mean, a really big one. The most interesting thing about UBI is that if everybody’s basic needs are met, we create a world where people start doing things for social capital. I would love to try that out.