Our Ancestors Worked Less and Had Better Lives. What Are We Doing Wrong?

Yves here. This post argues that most people work too hard and societally we’ve become acculturated to that. It omits a key element: the impoverishment of communities and social networks.

Due to the state of search, I can’t find an article that ran in IIRC the New York Times 20 years ago. It described a dirty secret: that many middle/upper middle income professionals actually preferred to spend time at work, as opposed to at home. At work, they hung out with other educated people, did interesting stuff at least some of the time, and at worst were subject to office dramas and bureaucratic stupidity. At home, they had to deal with spouses and kids who made demands when they were already tired and might not be emotionally equipped to handle even at the best of times.

In other words, nuclear families (which note did not exist in ancient times) are not only costly to maintain but too often are not all that personally satisfying, despite intense societal pressures and familial obligations to pretend otherwise.

Update: Alert reader Bryan C quickly identified a 1997 New York Times Magazine article, There’s No Place Like Work, as the one I remembered. Key section:

The evidence, however counterintuitive, pointed to a paradox: workers at the company I studied weren’t protesting the time bind. They were accommodating to it.

Why? I did not anticipate the conclusion I found myself coming to: namely, that work has become a form of ”home” and home has become ”work.” The worlds of home and work have not begun to blur, as the conventional wisdom goes, but to reverse places. We are, used to thinking that home is where most people feel the most appreciated, the most truly ”themselves,” the most secure, the most relaxed. We are used to thinking that work is where most people feel like ”just a number” or ”a cog in a machine.” It is where they have to be ”on,” have to ”act,” where they are least secure and most harried.

But new management techniques so pervasive in corporate life have helped transform the workplace into a more appreciative, personal sort of social world. Meanwhile, at home the divorce rate has risen, and the emotional demands have become more baffling and complex. In addition to teething, tantrums and the normal developments of growing children, the needs of elderly parents are creating more tasks for the modern family — as are the blending, unblending, reblending of new stepparents, stepchildren, exes and former in-laws.

By Ståle Wig, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Oslo. Originally published at openDemocracy

Before I finished this article I was stressed. It was the end of the winter holidays, but I still decided to take up a freelance job. I could have chosen to sit on a beach by the Oslo Fjord, go to the cinema or simply sit by the tomato plants on my balcony. Still, I took on an assignment that required many hours of work. The stress I felt as the deadline approached created a familiar drill in my stomach. I slept less, became more impatient and less present around others. The sun was shining outside, my bank account had enough money, but there I was anyway, labouring in the light of a computer.

Like most people, I feel a curious pull towards this activity we call ‘work’. When I am not sleeping, showering, cooking or eating, I spend most of my time working. I like to have free hours but not too many. In jail, prisoners who are put in solitary confinement beg to get out for work. They would rather do laundry and mop floors with convicted robbers and killers than twiddle their thumbs.

Most lottery winners do not stop working when they get rich. According toa study published in the Harvard Business Review, the more money people make, the more they work. In the US, 62% of those with the highest incomes work more than 50 hours a week. Over a third of those work more than 60 hours, and one in ten works 80 hours a week. Meanwhile, their plush gardens and swimming pools lie empty, and their luxury cars gather dust in the garages.

Evolutionary Laziness

Is it in our very nature to want to work as much as we can? Perhaps evolution has made us automatically appreciate those who work hard and look down on those who put their feet up. Perhaps we are predisposed to being diligent.

In a new book, ‘Work: A History of How We Spend our Time’, social anthropologist James Suzman arrives at a different answer to why we work as much as we do, and often far more than needed.

Suzman reviews humanity’s long work history, from when the first groups of Homo sapiens began hunting and foraging on the savannas of Africa, to today’s automated society. He concludes that it is not natural for people to work all the time.

Humans have inhabited the earth for a little over 300,000 years, and for the vast majority of it we have lived in a completely different way than we do today. Until about 10,000 years ago, when the agricultural revolution laid the foundations for urban society, most people lived as hunters and gatherers in small groups.

It was long believed that hunters and gatherers lived short and miserable lives. When the first Europeans went to the Kalahari Desert, they concluded that it must have been a bloody struggle to subsist on animals and plants. But when social anthropologists began to study and live among these groups in the 1960s – among nomads in the Arctic, Aborigines in Australia, Hadza tribes in Tanzania – they discovered something surprising. Life for hunters and gatherers was not a struggle. Surveys showed that hunters and gatherers ate varied and nutritious food. In fact, in many cases they ate 10% more calories than what an average person requires today.

Because hunters and gatherers did not have access to modern hospitals, infant mortality was high by today’s standards. But those who survived their 15th birthday could still expect to live until they were well over 60 years old. In other words, hunters and gatherers likely lived longer than most people in agricultural societies.

The most striking thing, however, was not life expectancy but the quality of life. Field studies showed that hunters and gatherers obtained all the food they needed with very limited effort, and enjoyed more ‘leisure’ than most people at the start of the industrial age. The Jo/’hoansi, who lived in the Kalahari Desert until the middle of last century, spent only about 15 hours a week acquiring the resources they needed to live, and roughly the same time caring for relatives at home. Fifteen hours a week, that’s hardly more than a worker during the industrial revolution worked in a day. While children and adults worked until their lungs collapsed in coal mines in Europe, the Jo/’hoansi sat around the fire and told stories, danced, sang and played games.

Through the majority of our history as a species, we have prioritised our lives differently than we do today. Even today’s accepted standard – around 40 work hours a week, in addition to childcare and housework – appears unnecessarily tedious from a historical perspective.

The Consumerist Hunt

If it is not natural to work as much as we do today, perhaps it is still necessary in today’s modern society?

The warehouse workers in Amazon’s department store, the garbage collectors in the landfills in Rio and the textile workers in Bangladesh have little choice but to work long hours. Because workers’ incomes are low, while the factory owners reap most of the profit, the world’s poor have to struggle all day long to support their families.

But the higher up the ladder we get, the harder it becomes to explain why we work so hard. In a famous article from 1930, the leading economist of the time, John Maynard Kenyes, predicted that in a hundred years modern society would have solved the problem of economic scarcity. Keynes therefore estimated that by 2030, his grandchildren would not have to work more than 15 hours a week, like the Jo/’hoansi, thanks to growth in capital, productivity and technological advancement. The future would be an age of “leisure and abundance”.

Keynes was right about one thing: the modern world became more productive. If anything, Keynes underestimated how much richer and more productive the world would become. However, Keynes was wrong when he claimed that these advances would also lead to everyone working less. Even though it takes fewer and fewer human hands to produce what our populations need, today most of us work just as much as we did in the 1970s. Why?

Even if our bank accounts are in the black right now, most of us keep working because we fear that if we stop, our needs or our families’ needs will not be covered in the future. Particularly in societies with little or no welfare state protection, everyday life is precarious, even for those not at the very bottom of the economic ladder. People work to stay afloat.

Yet many members of the middle class do not work just to get what they need. They also work to acquire everything they want. The middle class desire for more stuff is ingrained in the very structure of capitalism. For our economies to keep growing, consumers must always want more. We now live in a hunter and gatherer society where needs are covered, but where the hunt continues. Another holiday home, another transatlantic flight, an apartment with a view.

‘Bullshit Jobs’

Yet the expectation of increased growth and consumption is only part of the explanation for why the most privileged of us go to work in the morning. Work provides more than just a paycheck – it also gives us a sense of being a valuable human being. This ideology of work is prevalent across the political spectrum. The constitution of the Soviet Union literally declared that “He who does not work, shall not eat”.

Keynes was unable to predict how the job would become the very axis around which life rotates in the twenty-first century. When we meet a stranger at a party, we automatically ask, ‘what do you do?’ By this, we actually mean: ‘where do you stay between nine and five?’ We pity those who do not have a good answer because the job has become our foremost identity.

The less ‘bullshit’ your job is, the more likely you are to be paid poorly and treated poorly at work

It does not matter if you have one of the “bullshit jobs”, as described by the anthropologist David Graeber, where you attend meetings that no one pays attention to and write reports that no one reads. The sole aim is to participate in the ritual of work, even though it can be hell from nine to five. In my part of the world, one must have a job to have a dignified life. It ought to be a job that sounds cool, where you work on ‘projects’ and are terribly busy. Ideally, one should have a ‘career’. For the middle classes, it is no longer enough to work, we have to really love our jobs, and be busy all the time.

Part of this modern ‘hunt’ is good. We rush to create new medicines and technology that make life easier to live. But a lot of the stress is unnecessary. In my home country Norway, private consumption has doubled since the year 2000. We buy more things, eat more meat and fly more. In order to continue these lifestyles, our politicians claim that we must also work more. Their goal is to get as many people as possible into waged work, for as long as possible.

Rethinking Work

Yet something is shifting about how we think about work in modern society.

In the trade union movement, it has become common to discuss the possibilities of reducing working hours to share the jobs that exist. Moreover, the fact that people work a little less does not necessarily mean that we produce less. Iceland has experimented with a shorter working week for 1% of the country’s employees. The results, which came in last summer, are surprising: not only do people become healthier and happier when they work less, but they produce as much as before. In some cases, productivity goes up when working hours go down. People work less, but use their time better.

The new conversation about work is about more than just working less. The COVID pandemic has forced us to rethink what valuable work really is. Many have noticed that it was precisely the occupational groups with the lowest wages and lowest status – cleaners, transport and care workers – who prevented society from collapsing when the pandemic ravaged the worst, while the rest of us had to be at home.

Unfortunately, the rule of thumb is that the less ‘bullshit’ your job is, the more likely you are to be paid poorly and treated poorly at work. Underpaid nurses run from house to house to help the elderly while marketing consultants sit on the porch and attend Microsoft Teams meetings. Why should it be like this?

The time has come to rethink how we organise our work.

What should be the characteristics of valuable work in the 21st century, both the type that happens in an office and outside it? How should we work in an age where corporate fossil fuel extraction and private consumption is ruining the planet?

Policy developers and centrist politicians are discussing solutions to these problems that seemed utopian only a few years ago, from the four-day working week to Universal Basic Income and public ownership of technology.

Depending on the outcome of these debates, the future could be less like the hell that our most vulnerable workers endure, and more like the paradise Keynes dreamt of for his grandchildren.

The fact that someone might still choose to sit indoors and write online articles while the sun is shining – well, that would be their own choice.

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  1. Paul

    ”You used poverty to purchase a margin of free existence.”

    From A Letter to Thoreau , the prologue to The Future of Life – the recently deceased and already much missed E.O.Wilson .

  2. Michaelmas

    Our Ancestors Worked Less and Had Better Lives. What Are We Doing Wrong?

    This isn’t hard. Most of us are just too cowardly to believe the truth, even though it’s blindingly evident.

    Our societies are ruled by psychopaths and malignant narcissists, at least to the extent that they set the tone and create institutionally psychopathic social structures.

    Psychopaths want power over others and compete with other psychopaths for that power. So there’s a constant competition for ever more power, and in our societies power is expressed as money. Thus, psychopaths compete to accumulate ever more money and ideally–from their viewpoint–to become billionaires.

    That means that if money is created by credit–and in our societies it is–and if the other side of credit is debt—-and it is–and if the already-rich are always trying to accumulate more money–and they are–then ever more debt must be created, and a whole set of somebodies, the larger mass of the population, must be on the other side of that debt.

    Thus, the ever-rising cost of basic necessities like housing, healthcare, and now food, till these things–in the US, at least– are beyond what an increasingly large segment of the normal US human population can afford. Those still on the treadmill, meanwhile, must run faster and accede to ever-more psychopathic behaviors imposed from above, merely so that they and their families can hang on to what they have.

    All this, of course, has the effect of keeping the mass population divided and the first rule of power–of the rule of the many by the few–is divide and rule, of course. Thus, the psychopath class’s continual promotion of TINA, “there is no such thing as societal,” tribal conflict among and between the mass supporters of the two factions of the Uniparty, and racism–including racism in the form of “anti-racism.”

    Additionally, psychopaths–however clever–are poor at long term planning. Thus, too, our society’s continual and absolute failure to deal with long term problems like climate change.

    We all know this. Most of us are just too scared to admit it.

    Hope this helps.

    1. JE

      I’ve had the same thoughts. Part of what made hunter-gatherer societies more egalitarian is in my opinion (based on readings of books like those of Dee Brown, Tribes, Sapiens, etc) the practice of managing the small group (3%?) of humanity that exhibits socio-psychopathic tendencies towards accumulation of wealth and power. Practices like pot-latch (gaining stature by giving away your possessions, the more the better) both reduced inequality and identified those unwilling to share. Those with psychopathic tendencies were counseled, disciplined, ostracized, exiled or killed by the larger group in an escalating series of interventions. The evolutionary advantage of maintaining the genetic mutations that lead to psychopathy have been debated but the best theories I’ve read suggest advantage in times of extreme duress (famine, war, etc). Which even in our complex times may be advantages. We need to short circuit this and reclaim our selection pressures…however we run the risk of being vulnerable to its re-emergence, such as in the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horrors where the global removal of all weapons leads to domination by a man with a board with a nail in it. Lol.

  3. Cocomaan

    I’m in a bullshit field of work, regulatory compliance, which is why work from home has been life changing. I never really worked for more than twenty five hours a week. Now, instead of sitting in my cubicle with my thumb up my rear end, I take a walk or cook or hang out with my child or whatever.

    I’ve also participated in the hilarious phenomenon of working two remote jobs at once. In 2020, I worked three for a little while, one FT, two PT. I stopped when it got annoying, but I was making good money. https://www.wsj.com/articles/these-people-who-work-from-home-have-a-secret-they-have-two-jobs-11628866529

    I wonder how attitudes to work have changed since that 97 article. In some ways radically but I still know a lot of people who take refuge at work precisely BECAUSE they want to turn off their authenticity. Kids and home require your best self. On the other hand, there’s less and less trust in society now, so home is becoming more of a refuge.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      This reminds me of a story I heard back in the 90s when I worked in a hotel. If I remember correctly, there was guy who was doing two in-person jobs at once – he was simultaneously working two night security jobs at hotels across the street from each other. He eventually got caught and was fired but I did admire his creativity.

      1. cocomaan

        That’s hilarious, exactly the same thing, except white collar people can probably get away with it for much longer.

  4. Henry Moon Pie

    “The new conversation about work is about more than just working less. The COVID pandemic has forced us to rethink what valuable work really is. Many have noticed that it was precisely the occupational groups with the lowest wages and lowest status – cleaners, transport and care workers – who prevented society from collapsing when the pandemic ravaged the worst, while the rest of us had to be at home.

    Unfortunately, the rule of thumb is that the less ‘bullshit’ your job is, the more likely you are to be paid poorly and treated poorly at work. Underpaid nurses run from house to house to help the elderly while marketing consultants sit on the porch and attend Microsoft Teams meetings. Why should it be like this?”

    Every job has a carbon footprint. We must reduce carbon emissions immediately and very substantially (7.6% per year every year for 10 years according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)), and the last thing we need are bullshit jobs, especially in the U. S. where to every job’s carbon footprint must be added an often substantial commuting carbon footprint.

    A society that was both rational and humane would have determined which jobs were truly “essential,” and closed non-essential businesses while concentrating protection efforts (PPE, testing, contact tracing, quarantine) on essential workers while keeping everybody else home with government-provided income along the lines proposed by Rashida Tlaib at the beginning of the pandemic. That would have made for a nice transition into permanent restructuring to deal with ecological collapse.

    Whatever the “benefits” of this consumer culture of ours, they are now totally outweighed by both the Covid pandemic and climate weirding (as David Eisenstein rightly calls it). The JAWB must lose its exalted status and become what we must do in order to survive.

  5. vlade

    The original article’s headline is a clickbait.

    The industrial revolution poor worked as much as any third country sweatshops, including their kids. I’d very much doubt they would say “yes, we worked less than you do, and have better lifes” when compared to someone with a bullshit job today.

    There are important problems with work – ranging from Yves introduction, which really is about work replacing the social life (because we have no society, right?), to the last item on the authors list – consumption for consumption’s sake. But we’d not try to pretend that the history was a paradise, becasue it will distract from looking at those real issues – which, as even the author admits, are unique in the history – and solving them.

  6. David

    The problem of articles of this kind is that they lump a whole series of disparate ideas together under a single concept. “Work” for example has meant very different things over the ages. It meant one thing to hunter-gatherers, another to medieval farmers, another to self-sufficient agricultural householders, another to tradesmen working from home, another to industrial workers in the nineteenth century …. and so on. For most of history (and even now in some parts of the world) there was no difference between “home” and “work.” The big change, and quite a recent one, was when increasing numbers of people went to “work” for money somewhere outside the home, to earn money to keep the family together. We’re now at the point of alienation and absurdity, where very large numbers of people “work” without producing anything of value, to earn the money to buy goods and services which are produced by others who produce nothing of value to enable them …and so on again. In the past, people would identify with their “work” because work meant something, as it still does to doctors, lawyers, teachers, even hairdressers etc. “I”m a teacher” means that I’m a subject expert, I’ve had training and education and am fulfilling a function that society finds useful. In the past, an ironworker, a skilled machinist, a farmer, a carriage-driver, a glassworker, a baker, even a glove-maker like Shakespeare’s father, would say “I am X” and could take a certain pride in their skill and experience. But who really wants to identify themselves as an insurance salesman, a middle-level bank executive or for that matter a delivery biker? Surely, we think, there’s more to life than that.

    Again, how many hours you work depends very much on context. I have had jobs where I’ve just been inundated and have had no choice but to work long hours to get through it all. I’ve had others that fitted comfortably into a standard working week. So, I suspect, have most people. But there’s one simple question;: what’s the relationship between how much you earn and how much you work? If you’re a farmer, you do the work that needs doing. If you’re self employed, you work to earn as much as you want. If you’re a standard office worker, you might work longer hours to show your commitment. If you have no choice, you’re forced to work the hours you do, either to earn a living wage or because your employer us able to exploit you.

    1. Lee

      “But who really wants to identify themselves as an insurance salesman…”

      Funny you should say that. From a blue collar family, I worked blue collar jobs for years to support my radical activism habit during the ’70s. As I grew older, I could feel the wear and tear on my body taking it’s toll, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and based on the troubles I’d seen I became gripped by a terrible fear of being old and poor in America. I shed my overalls, put on a suit and tie, took full advantage of my white privilege, and got paid a whole lot more for doing a whole lot less socially useful work than I had when I got my hands dirty for a living. So there I was, making lie Willie Loman, with nothing between me and the great void but a shoe shine and a smile making bank. Such is the world we find ourselves in.

      1. Eustachedesaintpierre

        Yes David & someone being their trade was once a source of surnames, as in the Mason branch of my family going right back to the mid 17th century in York. It does however not appear to have applied to professions – Eric Actuary or whatever, unless as a sort of forename like judge or doctor.

        Perhaps it was just a way to avoid having to answer that annoying icebreaker of ” What do you do ? “.

  7. Lee

    The author of the NYT article quoted, Arlie Russell Hochschild, is a professor emeritus of sociology at U.C. Berkeley. Her husband, Adam Hochschild, is a writer of note as well. I recall reading her work back in the nineties with great interest as I was at that time attempting to convince my workaholic spouse that given her extraordinarily high income, plus my more modest financial contribution to the family coffers, she could well afford to spend more time taking it easy, goofing off, and having fun. Alas, I lost that argument and in good part because of that, I lost her as well. The difference in our respective propensities toward work and play, which I believe contributed in major way to our initial interest in and attraction to one another in the beginning, in the end also became a major contributor to our undoing. Ironic, that.

  8. LAS

    Association is not causation (essential worker –> poor treatment/low wage; no can buy that model). It is being limited by circumstances that is the cause of poor treatment/low wages as opposed to being an essential worker. Doctors, the most highly paid workers as a group, have also been essential workers during covid, and it is b/c they have social authority, particular education/experience and choices that their wages are high.
    As far as social anthropology goes, I get much more from reading Balzac and George Eliot than this soul writing from Univ of Oslo. What really matters are legal possession, alteration in legal possession, authority, and flow of funds. Who it is that actually distributes the wage to the worker pretty much holds that worker to the mat and directs their effort to benefit a particular interest/objective; and this is what should be studied. Low wage workers have less opportunity to turn their own labor to their advantage than the high level control frauds.

  9. anon y'mouse

    there’s something that i realized once and wonder if other people have too: the paradox of technology.
    let me clumsily try to explain this idea.
    every technology level we jump under the idea that it “saves us” some work on some level just displaces and may actually increase the level of work overall.

    a chip does many calculations and bazillion other things. but to have a chip in a functioning machine able to do those things, you need multiple industries functioning at profitable scale, you need mining and refining of materials into ever fancier & more complex combinations which usually require many machines and thus the designing, building, testing, operating and maintenance of those machines on a continuous basis. or, for another example, think of those gps combine harvesters that are almost self-running while the guy inside trades his stonks. what’s really involved in work and materials to make that machine (not done by him) while he saved the manual labor to produce those crops?

    in essence,the supply chain stretches and grows with each jump in our sophistication for use of materials and invention of fancy gewgaws to do new things with, to save effort over here and create more over there.
    so, has work really been eliminated, or has it merely changed its form and been shunted out of the immediate sight of the person who was trying to “save themselves some time/labor” onto many other hands? you be the judge. i say our technologies are creating MORE work, we just don’t realize it because it’s been moved downstream, to the more exploitable humans.

    we’ve had a almost two centuries of this kind of accretion of tech to make all kinds of things and do all kinds of things. more and more work for designers, miners, refiners, builders, testers, operators, maintainers and all of the accompanying bean counters to make sure it’s making money and to keep justifying spending on all of this. we won’t handle the FIRE sector resting atop it, which you here at NC have done so well over the years.

    1. Charles Yaker

      The Message is clear if buried “ The less ‘bullshit’ your job is, the more likely you are to be paid poorly and treated poorly at work”

      It’s almost as if the Grasshoppers are bossing and reaping the benefits that the Ants produce.

      1. anon y'mouse

        right, which i mention.

        but my point is probably also buried—we have magically created MORE work and not less. we’ve been given the illusion that it is less work, but it is just different work.

        this stuff all takes work to maintain. the article touches on what is truly valuable to us which we should try to preserve, but to do that we need to determine what those things are.

        perhaps most of even the non “bullshit” jobs are just keeping plates in the air that didn’t even need to be made, much less spun.

    2. Anon

      The other day, a friend of mine had to have his wisdom teeth pulled, as they were causing painful trouble… I mused “why would God do that to us? Imagine prehistoric man, without dentistry to care for their emergence!”

      It then occurred to me there must still be many who are left to suffer through the ordeal, despite modern advances.

      We don’t all get to benefit from technology.

      1. juno mas

        Imagine prehistoric man, without dentistry to care for their emergence!”

        All Prehisoric humans may not have had to deal with wisdom teeth as their occurrence is genetic. Some people get them some don’t. Some people get one, others three. And some get all four wisdom teeth without painful trouble.

  10. The Rev Kev

    I am beginning to think that because of the pandemic, people have had the time to realize that work as presently organized, just does not work. And more to the point, it does not have to be this way. Not at all. And so a lot of people in different countries are quitting their jobs because the future for them offers nothing but bleakness. People can see that pay is no longer that connected with the amount or type of work being done and those that have wealth often do not really deserve the amount that they have. One guy tweeted-

    ‘One of the worst parts of the pandemic was, without a doubt, when celebrities checked in to tell us how difficult their lives have been having to quarantine inside their mansions.’

    It does not take a genius to realize that if people’s lives have been so thoroughly degraded over the past forty years because of the elite’s adoption of neoliberalism, then what will life be like going forward over the next forty years? If somebody said that in forty years time that you would have people starving and even dying in the streets like in China a century ago, who would I be to disagree? We have the technology to free a lot of people from work but to do so, we would have to agree to a whole sector just simply working on their own personal projects and not what society demands – even if it is a high paying bulls*** job. Maybe we may have to consider C. H. Douglas’s social credit ideas-


  11. Amfortas the hippie

    “The less ‘bullshit’ your job is, the more likely you are to be paid poorly and treated poorly at work”

    amen to that,lol.
    every kitchen i ever worked in, i was the Key Man…essential to the smooth operation of the place. This didn’t translate into more money, of course…the result of my talent and efficiency was being coerced into being the leader, denied days off, etc. I was recognised as essential, but rarely compensated.
    when i moved out here, 25+ years ago, it was to get this farm up and running…and eventually, due to much reading, to somehow become an autarky….so i’d insist to whatever boss that i would not, under any circumstance, work on Sunday(i implied that there was a religious thing: Sabbath)…and i’d also insist on monday and tuesday off(slowest days). the real reason was so i’d have time to work the farm.
    Bosses generally couldn’t get their head around me not wanting to work for them all the dern time…working for myself, for no money, was incomprehensible.

    and from David, above:”For most of history (and even now in some parts of the world) there was no difference between “home” and “work.” The big change, and quite a recent one, was when increasing numbers of people went to “work” for money somewhere outside the home, to earn money to keep the family together. We’re now at the point of alienation and absurdity, where very large numbers of people “work” without producing anything of value, to earn the money to buy goods and services which are produced by others who produce nothing of value to enable them …and so on again.”

    when i had to quit working due to the dead hip, i discovered that almost universally, ordinary people were totally hostile to the disabled…especially those with invisible illness(noone ever saw me on bad days, because i didn’t leave the house).
    rampant disbelief…accusations of mooching and attempting to cheat the welfare(sic) system…all that encouraged an even further withdrawal from society…
    ever since, autarky has been the goal. if i make a tomato, i don’t have to buy one…and further, i don’t have to make the $2 to buy one in the first place.
    i’ve been all about severing dependency…electricity is still a hurdle…but i’ve otherwise made some pretty great strides towards this end…often in spite of my mom’s irrational narcissistic craziness(she sits on the Capital).

    another thing in this article that leaps at me: idleness/self-entertainment.
    as even a small child, i’d frustrate my mom by being perfectly happy when i was sent to my room as punishment. in fact, i preferred it.
    i’d read, arrange vast campaigns of star wars guys and dinosaurs, or just look out the window.
    this translated into things like DHall being ineffective…and later, In School Suspension. I’d finish the required work in 30 minutes, and read whatever i’d brought with me. ie: it was no punishment at all…to the great frustration of the punitive administrators.

  12. Mark Neuman

    Think about evolution of vacuums, cleaning products, Swiffers, etc. and yet cleaning the house STILL takes a full day. Advances in washer/dryer, dishwashers, etc. No difference.
    Seems incongruous.

    1. wendigo

      The average size of new homes in the US in 1920 was around 1000 sq.ft.

      Today it is around 3000 .

  13. Questa Nota

    Our ancestors didn’t have every single aspect of their lives monetized. Nobody was in some distant cubicle, or working at home in front of a keyboard in their jammies, figuring out how to extract that last cent of value dignity for the benefit of the shareholders, PE firm hedge fund or other [family blog] parasite.

    1. Questa Nota

      btw, can’t you hardly wait for Work 2.0 2.718281828459045… where mortgaged and derivativized futures intrude into daily lives existences. Nasty, brutish, but optimized not to be too short, not too long, but just right.

  14. Matthew G. Saroff

    It is true that hunter gathers had a better life than their herder and agricultural successors.

    The reason for the transition from hunter gathering was driven by the tremendous fecundity of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

    Depending on the environment, hunter gatherers require somewhere between 7 and 500 square miles per capita to support themselves.

    Once a certain population density is achieved, people are forced to move to more intensive, and less healthy ways of sustaining themselves.

    1. Michael McK

      That 7 to 500 square miles per inhabitant number is very suspect to me. In my area of about 30×30 miles or so there were thought to be about 10,000 original inhabitants whose diet was based on Salmon and acorns. That works out closer to 10 people per square mile.

  15. Daniel Raphael

    The texture of everyday life, both material and notional stresses, reflects the reality of systemic forces. The “marketplace economy” is not, has never been, a steady-state operation, going along at a regular pace, nothing to see move along… It has both velocity and direction…and its inner daemon, its elan vital, is the drive for ever-greater profits. We experience this in the quality–or lack of quality–of our lives. We are ourselves merely commodities among others in the marketplace, and we are treated accordingly. The many articles at this site about the (mis)treatment of working people are, to mention just one obvious item, evidence of this fact.

    So why are we worse off than our ancestors were? It’s because the many technological advances seemingly improving our lives are appropriated by a system that turns all human endeavor into a trudge on the wheel simultaneously degrading nature, our physical selves (lousy or no healthcare, etc.), poisoning all the dimensions of the environment, and returning the requisite zeros to accounts. This is the texture, the sensation, the physical reality of “the free marketplace” aka capitalism. It does not just go along on an even and steady place–it is accelerating the process of exploitation and correspondent destruction. Now that it’s globalized, we have global breakdown, including of course the literal foundation of life itself. But as one cartoon I saw decades ago portrayed, via a cigar-smoking tycoon standing in front of some warehouses belching industrial smoke: “What good is clear air if you can’t make any profit?”

  16. Synoia

    I point to the UK’s Enclosure acts, which were designed to remove people from there collective farming , to work in the factories of the UK’s Industrial Revolution.

    The relative low stress of collective farming was deliberately replaced with high hours of making the business class wealthy.

    Those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it. One has to seek the root cause of the long hours of the industrial revolution.

    1. Starry Gordon

      I figure the 40-hour week of the 20th century was developed so that the workers would have enough time to buy and consume all the stuff they had produced. Some of that is enforced by a hunger for status and power, some by social pressure, but there’s more to it. Once, long ago, a bonds trader told me he’d discovered his net worth was over a million dollars. This was back when a million dollars was real money. I told him that if I had a million dollars I’d never work (in the sense of being employed) again. “You say that,” he said, “but if you had a million dollars you’d want two million dollars, and so on. You already have more than most people, and you still work. And besides, I wouldn’t have anything to do.” This gave me much to think about, and I started working on the last part

      The other thing that was mentioned above but not much discussed was that many people have found the office and the job to be a more congenial environment than the home. That has been observed by many people and is indeed sort of paradoxical given that we can supposedly set up our homes the way we like.

  17. Tom Pfotzer

    There is, of course, another way to respond to this situation of a need to be relevant (to “work”) and the need for self-expression / exploration, and the stamping-mill of automation and high-efficiency low-fun commercial operations.

    A good bit of the technology that’s been created to make life easier for companies can be reorganized and implemented at the household level, so that we might yet again become foragers who spend 15 hours a week meeting the basic requirements, with the rest of our time to do what floats our boat.

    Why are we allowing someone else to capture all the benefits of technology?

    Of course, the reasons are:

    a. Big learning curve, with the associated opportunity costs
    b. Unlikely to be commercially competitive; scale matters

    But what if, like Amfortas, you’re not looking to sell into the market, you’re looking to substitute – buy what you make for yourself, and want less of what what you don’t make for yourself. Recall the point made above, that we spend much of our work effort satisfying wants rather than needs. Wants are quite malleable, actually, compared to needs.

    Wants are often injected into your persona from without. Advertising and “controlling the narrative” is the means.

    I think most people react to the foregoing with “that means you have to be Fred Flintstone, and live a nasty, brutish and short life”.

    May I point out: technology has made it possible to automate, at a very small scale, many of the provisioning needs of a household. Water, energy, food, entertainment, knowledge acquisition, clothing, nutrient cycling .. there’s more but you get the picture. And if these provisioning activities are perceived as “craft” pursuits, instead of “rote high volume production”, then they take on an entirely different cast. They become fun, and interesting, and fulfilling.

    Amfortas is on to something. He’s figured out a lot of the why, what and how of building a very interesting lifestyle.

    And it would not surprise me in the least to find out that he’s very accomplished in the acquisition and adapting-to-his-scale of many technologies.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      when the now Library/beat up trailerhouse was still in the trailer park in Austin, i wanted a porch.
      Austin, back then, was a hotbed of reuse/reduce/recycle fervor, and i hopped right on.
      county to the north was in a tract home subdivision expansion, and there were those long dumpsters full of used form lumber…mostly 2×4 and 2×6…coated and impregnated with concrete slurry. they just tossed them.
      so we went early sunday mornings in our little datsun hatchback and ran off with a bunch(cruising down the length of Lamar with boards tied to the roof and sticking out the windows…quintessential austin weirdness)
      hammered together a porch.
      hard to nail into the concrete.
      when we moved to come out here, i wanted to take it with us…waste not, and all.
      but we couldn’t dismantle it…the crete had seized the nails, and the boards had warped, seizing further.
      drive through that trailer park 20 years later, and that porch is still there…i’m told it’s been dragged to different trailers/rvs over the years, because it’s just that sturdy.
      can’t take it apart, can’t burn it(city), won’t fit in the dumpster, etc.
      so it gets handed off to whomever needs a porch.
      i consider it a sort of anonymous legacy.

      i’ve just added to that experience since then.
      2600 sq fit house for under 30K.
      a greenhouse that didn’t cost me a dime…woodshed, chicken houses, goat barn the same…essentially free, but for the extraction from the pile, and the hauling.
      when the city manager of our little town hears me talk about all this, you can tell he’s torn:1. he’s envious that i can do all this…no permit or permission–actual “freedom”, instead of the performative version, and 2. he salivates at the code violations if i were in town and subject to them.(diy composting toilet that wastes no water at all, and didn’t require a permit, nor paying out $8k to the sewer guy?lol)
      my methods can’t scale…because there’s too many humans, and the cities where everyone lives wouldn’t allow such methods.
      forget overthrowing the washington neoliberal consensus….overthrow the HOA and the Building Inspector.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        No chance of hiding from the inspectors (agent for the property-tax man, don’tcha know) where I live.

        The county flies overhead once a year scanning for new structures, and then they just send you an updated (increased) tax bill explaining what the new stuff you have is (and they’re right) and inviting you to contest their assessment by having an in-person visit.


        Resistance is futile.

        2,600 sq ft for $30K is doin’ it, Amfortas. My 3K sq ft (3 levels) cost around $190K labor and mat’ls back in ’95.

  18. meadows

    The bible of Back-to-the-Landers in the 60’s thru the 80’s was Scott and Helen Nearing’s book, Living the Good Life….(How to live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World) First in Vermont, then in Maine, they eschewed many of the modern trappings of farming and were vegetarian homesteaders. Scott was a rabble rousing leftie and spent half his day working the homestead and the other half reading/writing. Well worth a look. First edition written in the 50’s.

    I have had the chance to live like that, you hafta head into the puckerbrush to find affordable acreage and not be an idiot with your neighbors. I had built our first home by age 25, fully paid for, in 1978. All by hand, no electric tools. When I needed lumber, I rented my neighbor’s truck and drove to a sawmill, buying whatever the sawyer was cutting that day, wet hemlock, spruce, pine, whatever.

    My Pops used to tell me, “You have to live in the culture but you don’t have to be a product of it.” I took his words to heart and remain to this day, a man without a resume…

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Great story, esp. “… not be an idiot with your neighbors” and “you have to live in the culture, but you don’t have to be a product of it”. Great line; if you’re going to actually listen to one or two things your parents say, that’d be a good one to pick out.

      My story runs more to the “started out right, but wobbled out of orbit, the navigator reset itself, and then somehow the rocket engine turned on” theme.

      So now I live on a farm, and spend a lot of time building machines, some simple, some complex that chip away at the “capture the benefits of automation on behalf of the householder” wall.

      I experiment with new materials (thermal and structural composites), and structures (greenhouse, water tanks, that sort of stuff) and “robotics” in the sense of HVAC or washing machine class automatons. None of my robots walk around and talk or chase the deer away.

      It’s sorta working. No question it’s fun, and some of the stuff I build actually works, but economic? It’s not. Yet.

      But it took humanity a lot of centuries to get into this box, and I’m not going to get myself out of it overnight, so I take satisfaction in each tiny little step forward.

      In fairness, the length of the stride is increasing.

      Amfortas, glad to hear your stories, too. Sometimes educational, always entertaining.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        and i, yours.
        i’m pleased that there are others.
        usually feels that i’m the only one doing weird and/or archaic farm things.

        today, put in rooted cuttings of grapevines, an heirloom honeysuckle and our favorite plum tree(with the sucker for eventual grafting.)
        it’s 40 degrees, with high north wind, and i’m here in the greenhouse in essentially april.
        but on paper, i’m dirt poor and unworthy(credit score in 50’s, i’m told)

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Today I cut out and folded a piece of aluminum sheet metal to form an enclosure to hold bench-test apparatus. Cut out holes for power-in, program-in and debug-reporting-out lines for the little bitty thumbnail-sized computers that control the sensors and turn on/off the machines that enable a robot to “see” its environment, and take action to modify that environment. Added a bunch of dials ‘n blinkin’ lights to add drama.

          “bench test” is I.T.-boy speak for “slam your new software and hardware around till it breaks, and see what it took to break it”. All good developers do this. It’s not cruel.

          Break it on the bench so it doesn’t break in the field.

          The general goal is to build some baseline components, usable in all manner of “robots” that do stuff to make life @ homestead easier.

          The gradualized, iterative plan is to build “enabling technologies” – tinker-toy parts – which can be mix-n-matched and wired together to make higher-order assemblies.

          1. Amfortas the hippie

            that’s cool beans!
            and way, way outside my wheelhouse.
            i’m much more rudimentary in my tinkering.
            where i shine is in life systems “permaculture” and the like…one system feeds another, in a big loop of nutrient recycling.
            works awesomely on paper, but the limitations of my body and bank account are manifest, so i must do what i can,lol.
            all my crazy construction methods are ultimately derived from not having any money, and noticing what people toss out.
            zero training in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, etc…but i learned how anyway, because it needed to be done, and i couldn’t afford a pro.

            cold again manana, so i’ll root out some roses and pear trees.
            and, i came across some clear rubber tubing i’d liberated from the dump and promptly lost in the wreck that is my shop(next big task is a shop cleaning party…wrecked due to 3 years of wife’s cancer)
            i’ll toy around with capping both ends and filling with water and salt for a sort of poor man’s solar fiber optic lighting…we’ll see if my hunch is right,lol.

  19. Jackman

    Love this whole discussion, which feels oddly hopeful even though there is nothing here or anywhere to suggest that we’re on the edge of a dramatic change in our relationship to ‘work’. But just talking about it feels somehow psychically restorative, like just lifting the veil a bit on this giant dimension of modern life feels is like coming out of the closet in some way. Yes, work doesn’t work, but home life doesn’t either. I particularly like Yve’s comment in the preface about the weight that the modern nuclear family has been forced to bear, a burden that is entirely unsustainable. But the genius of modern life is that when it does fail, or more commonly, when family life teeters along the edge of collapse for years without actually imploding, the participants are all made to feel like complete shameful failures. The modern family is a tiny row boat in a neoliberal sea, and everyone imagines that it was always this way. They literally have no idea that they’re being made to carry–all by themselves–something pretty unusual in human history.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      “The modern family is a tiny row boat in a neoliberal sea, and everyone imagines that it was always this way. They literally have no idea that they’re being made to carry–all by themselves–something pretty unusual in human history.”

      Man, that’s good stuff.

      Write more.


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