Ben Singleton

Ben Singleton.

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worse of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

That is how the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described our earliest ancestors in their “state of nature” in his 1651 work “Leviathan.” This pessimistic view of human nature and the trade offs necessary to overcome it and enter into a social contract have been expressed elsewhere. Sigmund Freud wrote in “Civilization and its Discontents” that in order to enjoy the benefits of civilization, people in modern society must sublimate their violent and sexual urges. This self-policing is a suppression of the ego that in turn leads to neurosis — the anxiety and unhappiness of everyday existence.

But these views are false, according to anthropologist James Suzman in his “Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.” People in hunter-gatherer tribes in southern Africa such as the Ju/’hoansi and Hadzabe “would be considered very unlucky if they did not live well beyond sixty” once they had reached puberty and they were “expected to live slightly longer lives than Europeans on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.”

As for work, Suzman says that anthropologists have recognized for decades that hunter-gatherers didn’t spend more than 15 hours a week gathering food and that these small societies had a clear and cooperative division of labor. This flies in the face of common assumptions that life in the pre-modern era was nothing but misery and toil from cradle to grave — that existence was nothing but “ solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In fact, it is keeping a complex society that requires more effort: “The more complex a structure, the more work must be done to build and maintain it.”

With technological advancement, more and more people are asking who, or better yet, what, will do this work. Automation has and will alter workplaces. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely accelerate changes in how people earn their living. Will there still be work for people to do if machines get smart enough to replace human beings in many professions? As Yogi Berra said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from prognosticating. In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 most people wouldn’t work more than 15 hours a week and that the standard of living will be four to eight times as high. Instead, the standard of living today is 17 times as high and we work almost as much as our grandparents and great-grandparents did.

Keynes would be surprised by the world we live in today. But Suzman writes that he misunderstood our relationship with work. It’s not merely a way to earn a buck. It has an intimate relationship with life and energy and that “our purposefulness, our infinite skillfulness, and ability to find satisfaction in even the mundane are part of an evolutionary legacy honed since the very first stirrings of life on earth.”

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