Thursday, March 17, 2016

Paying for the ancestors' worst mistake ever!

I have often wondered, in this blog too, why we humans tend to work so hard.  Sometimes, if the context ever comes up, I even bug students in my classes about this.  I tell them that biologically we are animals, and that for the longest time we even lived like that--the hunting/gathering ancestors of ours worked enough to get food for the day and then they called it quits. I tell them that the settled agriculture ruined it for us because ever since then we have been working hard from dawn to dusk and now we work round the clock thanks to artificial lighting and heating!

Of course, when I criticize the permanent agriculture, I am merely channeling Jared Diamond, who called that the worst mistake ever!
How do you show that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering for farming?
From the perspective of hard work and very little down time, the "progress" is questionable:
 Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn't emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"
Imagine a 14-hour work week.  Oh, wait, that's the faculty life! ;)

In the contemporary world, in a life that the hunter-gatherers would not remotely relate to, we are proud of working hard.  We are even suspicious of those who seemingly do not want to work as hard as some do.  Ryan Avent has a lengthy essay pretty much defending himself while explaining why he--and many others like him--love to work hard and long hours.

BTW, perhaps you recognize the name Avent from having been a subscriber to the Economist.  What I didn't know until I came across that essay by Avent is that the Economist has launched another periodical, called 1843.
The Economist’s bi-monthly magazine of ideas, culture and lifestyle. Aimed at the globally curious, every issue includes in-depth features, as well as culture, design, technology, travel, style, food and drink, and body and mind.
You can guess what the significance of 1843 might be to that publication, right?

Anyway, back to Avent's defense of his long work days:
You might have thought that whereas, before, a male professional worked 50 hours a week while his wife stayed at home with the children, a couple of married professionals might instead each opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure. That didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children.
And that is exactly what Avent attempts to answer.   Read that engaging piece.

I am not sold on the long, long work days.  I remain convinced that it is pretty darn stupid to spend a good chunk of one's life merely working away.  But, hey, if ever you are frustrated by all that hours of work and no leisure, then curse our ancestors whose brilliant idea it was to settle down and start farming and domesticating cattle more than 10,000 years ago!


Anne in Salem said...

I'll happily work my 40 hours (it helps that I love my job) in exchange for the benefits that came from settling down 10000 years ago, not the least of which is healthier lives. I'll work 40 hours if I get to live until I'm 100 to enjoy kids, grandkids, greatgrandkids, other family, friends, music, museums, travel, and all the other things I like that have developed because we settled. More than a fair exchange in my mind. I could never work like Avent - and wouldn't want to. Of course, if we hadn't settled, I wouldn't have my job . . .

Mike Hoth said...

I'm more willing to blame the factory than the farm. The farm cut down on free time, sure, but a family of 3 or 4 could still share the load and work far less than 40 hours a week each. Add into that trades like brewing or cobbling or metalwork and long work weeks weren't all that common. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and it began our tilt towards climate change as well. I'll work 25 hours a week and not risk starving as frequently. Working 40 hours for the same deal and less control, not so much.

Sriram Khé said...

It does come down to thinking about what it means to live a good life. On this, we are all not going to be in agreement. But, I would at least like people to consciously think about why they do what they do, and evaluate for themselves if the life they lead by--in this context--working away 60 and 70 hours a week and always in the midst of people who are very much like them is what they think of as the good life, even as they completely outsource all aspects of life in the real world from cooking and cleaning to feeding the kids to checking on the parents to ...

Ramesh said...

That is a one sided biased argument by a mile. Leisure is just one component of life - Do you seriously believe that mankind was not improved by agriculture , settling down, etc etc ??

But the thrust of the post is on leisure and he let me argue the case that consequent to settling down, we have far far greater opportunities for leisure than we would have ever had as hunter gatherers. Its our choice whether we want to work hard or enjoy some leisure. The hunters did not have a choice. If they did not work, they starved. We have a big choice.

We actually have a fair amount of leisure today. We work 5 days a week. We take holidays. We spend enormous amounts of time on entertainment - be it watching TV or browsing the Net, a movie or music or whatever our tastes are. The comparison with the Hadza is seductive but misleading. The amount of time we spend working to put food on the table is minuscule. We work to make money to fulfill all our other wants.

Your point that we should consciously think about the balance and decide is , of course, bang on.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, sometimes we want to point to some kind of an outlier example or even a thought experiment in order to drive towards a point, which in this case was whether we are consciously thinking through when we spend 60 hours or more every week on "work" during our prime years. Or, for that matter, when we while away our time entertaining ourselves during our prime years.

I am not sure about the "choice" you write about. It might seem like now we really do not have a choice but to work, whereas the hunters and gatherers barely "worked" for an hour or two every day in order to get the food. Yes, we live longer now. But for what? So that we might work or amuse ourselves? What exactly is the purpose of living a longer life? I am not sure the answer is as definitive as you think it is.

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