Mayday — International Workers’ Day

Most countries in the world celebrate Labour Day on the first of May. Cause for a brief reflection on work and a book recommendation.

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time (2020) by James Suzman

James Suzman traces the history of work from our hunter-gatherer prehistory to our modern times. Work, of course, serves our survival and we shouldn’t have to work more than necessary. Suzman writes:

John Maynard Keynes […] predicted in 1930 that by the early twenty-first-century capital growth, improving productivity, and technological advances should have brought us to the foothills of an economic “promised land” in which everybody’s basic needs were easily satisfied and where, as a result, nobody worked more than fifteen hours in a week. We passed the productivity and capital growth thresholds Keynes calculated would need to be met to get there some decades ago.

Keynes’ vision was — like Karl Marx’ communist vision — a utopia. It could have materialised, but it didn’t. Our forager ancestors, ironically, had both: communism and a 15 hour work-week. Like Marx, Keynes was a “forager” type, i.e. inherited more forager genes than farmer genes. That may sound absurd, but considering that foragers and farmers and herders don’t mix well, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that their genes often passed through generations due to assortative mating as well as social barriers, such as stratification.

Our work habits, like working 9–5, working for surplus and working for status, leave our forager cousins scratching their heads. These are typical “farmer work habits”. Ancient farmers rose early, worked all day, took regular breaks for eating, rested and went to bed early. Their work was basically never done, because they always strived towards higher productivity, which guaranteed them surpluses for lean times as well as higher status and higher reproductive chances as more surplus could support more wives and children.

Foragers do on-demand “punctuated” work and struggle with routine work like farming and herding. On the flip side, they can go for long stretches without food and can hyperfocus on work. This can be best observed in a type of hunting called “persistence hunting”, described by Suzman:

Back in the 1950s, several Ju/’hoansi in Nyae-Nyae were still masters of persistence hunts, an art that may well be as old as our species and possibly much older still. It is also an art that reminds us how much of the work done by our evolutionary ancestors in the course of meeting their basic energy needs was cerebral, and involved gathering, filtering, processing, hypothesising and debating sensory information from the world around them.

Hunting and gathering, perhaps to our surprise, were much more cerebral jobs than commonly assumed, herding and even more so farming were much more routine jobs. Foragers were the original “life-long learners”, the best hunters typically older more experienced males than younger fitter ones.

I have been arguing that forager type people have been working hard to adapt “farmer” work more to forager needs, both with technical (e.g. machines) and social (e.g. trade unions, shorter working hours) inventions. Work has become much less physical and more cerebral and creative. It’s not a recent invention per se. It’s a “foragerizeation” of farmer work, which can still be seen in most work patterns, like 9–5 jobs and most of all, we don’t stop working when we have enough material goods to survive. We take the time we could be spending with our friends, loved ones and children away to do more work.

In ancient Ayurveda the “tribes are identified as “vata” (foragers), “pitta” (herders) and “kapha” (farmers). Vata dosha (constitution) people have always preferred more creative than physical work and been averse to rote jobs:

For a person who has a dominating Vata Dosha, he or she may be typically more susceptible to mental stress. While many Vata types do well in creative or mental jobs, it could create too much stress if the mental workload is intense. Vata types do best if they have moderately relaxing jobs, without excessive mental or physical activity. The Vata dominant minds are ever curious and creative, fundamentally motivated by the need for change and stimulation. Vata helps to create something out of nothingness with ideas coming from nowhere. Vata types can give them plenty of change, renewal, variety, novelty, stimulation, freedom to move and think relatively freely. If they work with a healthy amount of experimentation and exploration they will love and thrive in that kind of context.

Ironically, forager types are the ones who are most likely to become workaholics and not allow themselves rest (this instinct is built into farmer types), in particular when they are passionate about their work. Then it becomes an endless “persistence hunt”. Forager types are also the ones most likely to suffer from ADHD in schools and burnout at work. Their restlessness quickly turns into insomnia and related problems.

John Maynard Keynes was rather averse to “farmer” work-ethic, in which he — correctly — saw the biggest obstacle to solving his economic problem of a 15 hour work-week. Perhaps we all value work too much. We are socially defined by our jobs and we identify our social status with our jobs. These are evolved farmer instincts, which have outlived their purpose. Hard work neither makes you rich nowadays, nor does it guarantee you more offspring. In fact, the richer a country becomes the fewer the average number of offspring. And some “farmer” countries, like Japan and China are affected the worst of all. The inbuilt “greed” that so helped early farmers multiply like rabbits has started to backfire.

Put yourself into the perspective of a hunter-gatherer, any chance you can make sense of this crazy world?

Originally published at on May 1, 2021.




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Andreas Hofer

Andreas Hofer


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