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!

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