#51 - Book Review: Work
Summary and commentary on "Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots" by James Suzman
In 1957, Vere Gordon Childe, a recently retired world-famous archaeologist was hiking along Govett’s Leap in Australia’s beautiful Blue Mountains. During the hike, the Sun was beating, and he was exhausted, so he temporarily removed his glasses to wipe the beads of sweat dripping on the lens and down the frame. However, during this moment the short-sighted professor lost his footing and fell, bringing his illustrious career and life to a tragic end. Or, at least that’s what the coroners said when they found Childe’s lifeless body.
Twenty-three years later, the truth about Childe’s death was revealed: Suicide. A few days before plunging off Govett’s Leap, Childe wrote a letter to Professor William Grimes, his successor at the University of Londons’ Institute of Archeology. Childe asked Grimes to keep the letter to himself for at least a decade, but eventually, Grimes published the letter in full. Excerpted, it reads:
For myself I don’t believe I can make further useful contributions to prehistory. I am beginning to forget what I laboriously learned—forget not only details (for these I never relied on memory), but even that there is something relevant to look up in my note-book. New ideas very rarely come my way. I see no prospect of settling the problems that interest me most . . . In a few instances I actually fear that the balance of evidence is against theories that I have espoused or even in favour of those against which I am strongly biased . . . I have no wish to hang on the fringe of learned societies or university institutions . . . I have become too dependent on a lot of creature comforts—even luxuries—to carry through some kinds of work for which I may still be fitted . . . I am just a burden on the community. . . On my pension I certainly could not maintain the standard without which life would seem to me intolerable and which may be really necessary to prevent me becoming a worse burden on society as an invalid. I have always intended to cease living before that happens . . . Life ends best when one is happy and strong.
Childe is on one end of the extreme with respect to his attitude towards work: Be productive and useful to society, or die. We admittedly may not go that far, but let’s be honest—even if we dial this back a couple of notches, some of this resonates. Many of us find moral value, dignity, or self-respect in our ability to work and to produce good work.
What’s up with our attitude towards work? In Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, James Suzman attempts to answer this question through a historical lens. Like other good histories, Suzman doesn’t merely provide the spattering of dots, but connects them to form a narrative of the human relationship to work and where we’re going from here.
Work wasn’t always like this. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, dubbed the “original affluent society” by Suzman, spent less than twenty hours per week doing work. They hunted and gathered only when they felt like it, and… that was that.
Suzman spills a lot of ink on the importance of fire and how it changed work for our early ancestors, but I think his discussion can be distilled into three points. First, by enabling humans to cook and consume more nutrients, fire opened up a ton of time for hunters and gatherers to do things other than work—leisure, essentially. Second, when our ancestors outsourced energy requirements to fire, they took the first steps toward creating a world where being physically strong wasn’t the only important quality—specialization of work, essentially. Third, fire made it easier for some members of early human communities to feed those unable to feed themselves—welfare programs, essentially.
Speaking of welfare, here’s how welfare worked in foraging societies: Anyone who wanted anything from another person could simply request it, and the other person would grant it. No hard feelings. No being looked down upon. No undertones of theft or freeloading. Suzman calls this a “demand-sharing” society.
To us, this should sound strange. Indeed, contrast demand-sharing with today’s economic theories of capitalism and socialism. In capitalism, the capitalists scorn the idle poor, and in socialism, the labor class scorns the idle rich. Under both of these economic schemes, you can’t achieve equality without taking away someone’s liberty, and you can’t grant everyone liberty without taking away the promise of equality. However, unlike capitalism and socialism, which are opposite sides of the same laziness coin, foragers in demand-sharing societies didn’t have a concept for laziness: Ask for whatever you’d like—you can have whatever you’d like! As a result, these societies achieved equality and liberty at the same time.
But Suzman doesn’t stop here. Contrary to today’s technologists, who claim that the Internet has abolished scarcity and created a world of abundance, Suzman claims that it was actually the hunter-gatherers, thousands of years ago, who lived in a world of abundance! According to Suzman, hunter-gatherers never worried about where their next meal would come from; they believed that nature and the environment would always provide for them. As a result, hunter-gatherers didn’t plan ahead. They were short-term focused, living in the present. When they were hungry, they spent a few hours hunting for food, but they never hunted in excess. They only accumulated enough for what they needed for the day, and having the ambition to hunt and gather in excess was looked down upon.
Things began to change when we made the shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Here are, for instance, some of the big differences I picked up from Suzman’s book:
Contentment vs. anxiety/ambition: To hunter-gatherers, everything existed in the present. They didn’t carry baggage from the past, nor did they worry about the future, since they believed that nature would always provide. In other words, they typically believed their world would be more or less as it had always been. As a result, they were content with what they had, stoically accepted occasionally hardships, and weren’t hostage to outsized ambitions. On the other hand, farmers lived simultaneously in the past, present, and future, creating an anxiety-filled life. Almost every task on a farm is focused on achieving a future goal or managing a future risk based on an ongoing feedback loop of past experience.
Demand-sharing vs. transactional: As we’ve already discussed, hunter-gatherer society was both free and equal as people shared unconditionally among themselves. Suzman argues that this demand-sharing among members of a tribe was an organic outgrowth of how foragers viewed the environment: The environment freely gave to the foragers, so why shouldn’t the foragers give freely amongst themselves? Farmers, though, had a transactional relationship with the environment: Farmers invested labor into the environment, so the land subsequently owed the farmers a debt in the form of a bountiful harvest. Suzman argues that this transactional relationship with the environment translated into transactional relationships with one another. So, farmers invented currency and began to exchange with one another at arms-length, marking the start of a barter society.
Abundance vs. scarcity: To hunter-gatherers, time was always plenty, but to farmers, time was scarce. Hunter-gatherers could afford to take a day off whenever they wanted, in large part because they enjoyed the fruits of their labor immediately. Putting off the food quest for a day or two wouldn’t have any serious ramifications. But the story was different for farmers, whose efforts produced delayed returns far into the future. Sure, there were windows of time for farmers to take breaks, but outside these windows, when work urgently needed to be done, the consequences of not doing work were almost always considerably greater for farmers than for foragers. They had countless responsibilities they needed to tend to, including irrigating thirsty crops, dealing with pests, removing weeds, repairing fences for animals, etc. etc.
Starting to sound familiar?
Excess agricultural output, increased specialization, and the development of more sophisticated tools were the spark that ignited humanity’s first cities. While cities have existed since 4,000 B.C., I’ll focus here on Suzman’s discussion of industrialized cities, those that arose during the Industrial Revolution.
Industrial society saw a high level of stratification between the aristocracy, the merchants, the working class, and the peasants. Thanks to the development of new textiles and homeware in the 1500s, conspicuous consumption ran rampant as members of the lower classes found new ways to present themselves outwardly as members of the higher class. Some anguished aristocrats even intentionally dressed down to distinguish themselves from the try-hard rabble who were dressing up. The optics of rank were apparently so intense that they were even enforced and entrenched through laws. For example, the 1571 Act of Parliament demanded that all men and boys older than 6 years old (other than nobles) must wear distinctive woolen caps every Sunday and all other holy days. Suzman also suggests that the rise of mass print advertising in the 1700s misled people into believing in upward social mobility. According to Suzman, with newspapers advertising the latest and greatest gadgets, people that were able to purchase those products falsely believed that they were upwardly mobile and closing the gap between themselves and others.
During the industrial era, workers also became commoditized and funneled into mechanical, boring tasks. According to Suzman, this is largely thanks to Frederick Winslow Taylor, a high-strung grade-A stickler who apparently needed to put himself in a strait jacket to go to bed. Taylor wrote Scientific Management, a book where he took a scientific eye to extracting maximum efficiency out of workers. The tenets in this book would eventually be used by the likes of Henry Ford to turn work into a rote, mechanical task and people into just another cog in a machine.
But Taylor wasn’t all terrible for workers. Taylor believed that, in return for their efficiency at at work, first class workers should be rewarded for their productivity in the form of higher wages and more time off. But was this tradeoff—less meaningful work in exchange for higher pay and more time off—worth it? Labor movements and trade unions apparently thought so, as they focused almost all of their attention on securing better pay and more leisure rather than trying to make their jobs more interesting and fulfilling. In fact, in the industrial era, we begin to see workers saying that pay is king, more important than leisure. For example, in the 1930s, Kellogg (the cereal company) was able to reduce working hours to 30 hours per week while maintaining similar levels of pay (thanks to increased efficiency and economic output), but interestingly enough, in the 1950s, 75% of staff began asking to reinstate the 40 hour work week so they could take home more money.
Suzman also emphasizes how communities changed in the industrial era due to increasing specialization in functions. In more primitive societies societies, chiefs and shamans could simultaneously be foragers, hunters, farmers, and builders. Because everyone performed interchangeable roles, there was shared solidarity, understanding, norms, and beliefs among entire communities. During the industrial era, however, roles began to splinter into their own silos. A lawyer couldn’t moonlight as a doctor or vice versa. There arose a lawyer perspective of the world, a doctor perspective of the world, and all the way down the line across different jobs. This made it harder to bind large communities together, leading to “anomie,” the breakdown of society through the severing of social bonds.
A post-industrial society is one where the services sector has eclipsed the manufacturing sector. But what, exactly, is the services sector, you ask? To be honest, I don’t really know, and even Suzman himself admits that services are hard to pin down—the sector includes “any job that does not involve producing or harvesting raw materials as in farming, mining, and fishing, or the manufacture of actual things, like the knives and forks and nuclear missiles, from those raw materials.” Notice how Suzman defines services in the negative rather than the positive (i.e., “services are not X” rather than “services are X”), making services extremely amorphous.
So, let’s put two and two together. First, you have services, this really amorphous industry—what does it actually mean? Second, in a post-industrial society, the vast majority of people are engaged in services… So Suzman’s next logical next question is: What, exactly, are people actually doing?
Echoing David Graeber, Suzman says that many, many, many of these service sector jobs are “bullshit jobs,” jobs that are “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence” and include the likes of corporate lawyers, PR execs, health and academic administrators, and financial service providers. Suzman admits that some service jobs are important, and he admits that some people might find bullshit jobs engaging, but he ultimately argues that the vast majority of people in those bullshit jobs don’t. He then hits you with a barrage of statistics highlighting modern society’s administrative and bureaucratic bloat and people’s profound dissatisfaction with their jobs. What happened here?
Suzman puts forward a few hypotheses but ultimately believes that we did this to ourselves, not to create value for society, not to make us fulfilled, but—get this—just to keep ourselves busy. Remember the shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers? Yeah, well according to Suzman, this shift created “a culture that makes us intolerant of freeloaders and canonize gainful employment as the basis of our social contract with one another even if many jobs don’t serve much purpose other than keeping people busy.” In other words, according to Suzman, we as a society would rather have people twiddle their thumbs for money and call it a “job” than have have people twiddle their thumbs for leisure alone.
Suzman twists the knife even further and condemns post-industrial society’s widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Since the 1980s, society has been in the midst of “The Great Decoupling:” Productivity, output, and GDP have all continued to grow, but real median wages have been stagnant. A smaller and smaller elite have been capturing a larger and larger slice of the growing economic pie. Meanwhile, the lower and middle classes are hardly any better off and must incur more debt and work longer hours to climb up. Suzman attributes our current level of economic inequality to a “corporate conspiracy” pushed by the paper-pushers at McKinsey. In 1998, McKinsey published its “War for Talent,” which urged HR departments across the world to open their eyes to the diminishing pool of available talent and to wage a war to attract these rare “masters of the universe.” This led to fattening executive compensation, ballooning ambition, and the arrogant sense that you are where you are, perched on top of the world, because of merit.
Suzman, of course, believes this whole McKinsey thesis is bad and wrong. He cites scholars who argue that there’s no shortage of top talent and that the obsession with the talent is actually creating a corrosive work culture, which not only makes work less enjoyable but also makes organizations less efficient. Suzman also seems to implicitly reject the idea that there is a clear, meritocratic correspondence between wealth and hard work, but he admits that it’s not so easy for society to shrug this off. After all, the wealthy like to believe that they are worthy of their rewards, and the poor don’t want to mess with their own sense of agency, their dream that they, too, might make it one day if they work hard enough.
Through thousands of years, we have been working ourselves into a pickle of paradoxes. Our economy is now more prosperous than ever before, but we face historically abnormal levels of suicide and social stress. Despite labor productivity in industrialized nations having risen 4-5x since end of World War 2, average weekly working hours everywhere have continued to gravitate toward an average of ~40 hours per week. Finally, we’re being pinched from both sides of the work equation: Exhaustion due to over-work and detachment due to under-work. People throughout history have over-worked themselves to death, but for the first time ever, we’re working ourselves to death not because we have to (i.e., due to poverty or hardship), but because of our own ambitions. At the same time, some of us are also literally dying from our jobs being so useless, mundane, and devoid of skill.
So where do we go from here? Suzman ends by painting a bleak picture of our future: Artificial intelligence will automate most of our jobs away, creating immense value for the few capitalists that developed the AI and leaving the rest of the world jobless and depressed. But Suzman argues that it doesn’t need to be this way. Even if robots do take over, our current obsession with work and scarcity is not an immutable property of the human experience. There’s an inescapable sense that Suzman is nostalgically looking to the past to find our future, urging us to re-kindle our hunter-gatherer instincts from ages past to form a society after capitalism.
The book is 400+ pages long, so there are a lot of interesting things I didn’t cover. Things like how and why we made the transition from hunter-gatherer —> farming —> industrial, and how there actually exist animal species, other than humans, that do work for no good evolutionary purpose. This is all really fascinating, and I encourage you to read the book to find out more!
The book overall was an enjoyable read, as much of a page-turner as other very good history books like Sapiens. That said, I didn’t find Work particularly eye-opening in showing me a new way to think about work. I appreciate that Suzman cites many examples of our relationship with work through history—I hadn’t known about many of these examples, and they are very interesting!—but for me, these examples just confirm a long narrative arc of work that I had already known about.
One issue I have is the amount of time Suzman spends discussing foraging societies—about 35-40% of the entire book. I guess it’s not unexpected, given that Suzman is an anthropologist who studies modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes. But when authors spend so much time talking about the distant past, they all run into the same problem: Lack of documentation. This leads Suzman to rely heavily on phrases like “It was almost certainly the case that…,” “One can't help but wonder that…,” etc., so my epistemic status when reading things like this is… very skeptical, to say the least.
But I have a bigger gripe with the focus on forager societies: I’m not convinced that a return to the forager relationship with work is in our future! Sure, I appreciate that Suzman gives us a blueprint for the future based on the past—after all, I believe that base human desires stay constant but are constantly being repackaged and channeled into new form factors and products. So, Suzman thinks that a return to the forager view of work is entirely possible—it’s not like we’re creating a new relationship with work that fundamentally contravenes human nature! But even if you agree with Suzman that this is possible, I am skeptical that it is feasible (or even desirable). The forager relationship with work is one that we abandoned a loooong time ago, and the fabric of our society today is stitched with ambition, planning, desire, and innovation. Does Suzman’s vision of the future require pulling society apart thread by thread, until innovation has been sufficiently decelerated? If so, then no thanks.
The attention paid to forager societies comes at the expense of additional detail on industrial society, which is much more tangible to us today and can therefore likely be much more feasible as a blueprint for our future. How has worked changed, century to century, from the 1400s? What was good, and how can we return to that? And what was bad, and how can we avoid that? I believe that answers to these types questions can provide more insightful, actionable paths towards a better relationship with work.