Work: A History of How We Spend our Time by James Suzman

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

I will say right away that this is probably not the book you think it will be. The subtitle suggests it will be a history of humans and how they spend their time, as does the title, but this is in fact a “deep” enquiry into what “work” actually is.

Suzman is an anthropologist – rather than a socialist or economist – who is the director of a think tank that “applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems” (Amazon, information sheet with the book). But he goes further than this, using evolutionary biology for a lot of the first part of the book to, if I’ve understood this correctly, define work as the application of energy sources outside a being to sustain that being’s life; when there is energy left over, then effort is put into other activities, such as building elaborate nests, if you’re a weaver bird, or engaging in hobbies. Interestingly, hobbies are often linked to things that were considered life-sustaining work in previous times (e.g. running historic railways, running, itself, etc.).

It appears to be Suzman’s main contention that the hunter-gatherers of old, some of whom still just about cling on today, had an ethos of using just enough effort to get just enough to live on, just in time, and a culture of requesting surplus from one another to redress any imbalances. While the ‘economic problem’ has long been a feature of modern economics, suggesting that we are forever chasing the ability to balance out scarcity (agriculture develops, the population grows, food becomes scarce, we must work harder to get it), he sees this system as being more conducive to a peaceful and sustainable living:

Their economic life was organised around the presumption of abundance rather than a preoccupation with scarcity.

while noting and accepting that in colder and more inhospitable climates, it’s just not feasible to not store any excesses or work in advance for a rainy day. So some of our obsession with work is down to the climate, although people in in-between climes can do a bit of planning but still not be beholden to grain storage and hierarchies. I wasn’t quite sure what the solution was here, apart from mention of Universal Basic Income and a requirement to cut down on what we want and think we need versus what we actually need; at the moment, we’re still stuck in our not so old ways:

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, do we remain so preoccupied with scarcity?

After discussing these ideas, Suzman posits his central theory that the history of our relationship with work has two pathways that intersect: our relationship with energy, which defines the difference between living and dead things, and includes the ‘work’ done by many other living creatures, and the human evolutionary journey, through tools, agriculture and machinery, including our purposefulness in using excess energy to create monuments and other features which are not associated with work to produce things or the money to attain things. This has now culminated in a flourishing of automation which is having the effect of driving more money into the hands of those who already have it while removing employment and wages from those who do not.

The story of our working lives can be found amongst a whole story of evolution from plankton onwards and especially the points at which humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers, which was the point at which we used animals and machinery and worked to build surpluses, and the growth of cities, which led to the development of specialisms (lawyers, teachers, etc.) and the associated service industries. Suzman’s also clear on his theory that it was not only the labour demands of the Industrial Revolution that grew the cities of Northern England but also the development of agricultural technology which pushed the subsequently underemployed rural population into the cities from the countryside. It’s also important to note that the nature of work changed at one point in the 19th century from being viewed as a way to provide the means of survival to a way to purchase more ‘stuff’, ‘thus closing the loop of production and consumption that now sustains so much for our contemporary economy’. There’s a good chapter on overwork which really gets going deep into the nature of how work can overtake our lives, and this leads back to his central premise with a critique of the jobs that have flourished that have no purpose apart from giving people something to do (David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’). But as well as both him and unions and reformers wanting us to work less, Suzman makes the compelling point that there hasn’t been a similar impetus to make jobs feel more meaningful of fulfilling.

It’s certainly a worldwide study and I very much liked the inclusion of detailed case studies of countries such as Namibia as well as the more obvious China rather than a concentration on Western societies when the cities came in.

But the main point is that work has not always occupied most of our time, and is likely not to in the future, as the concluding chapters on the growing automation of our lives make clear. And although the hunter-gatherers and foragers have the right idea in many ways, they only need to invest their labour effort to satisfy their spontaneous needs, whereas now we have to take a longer view to protect our species, those within it who are losing out, and our planet. As he states in the Conclusion, the purpose of this book is ‘to loosen the claw-like grasp that scarcity economics has held over our working lives, and to diminish our corresponding and unsustainable preoccupation with economic growth’. There’s a hat-tip at the end to how things might be able to change: more likely catalysts of change than automation and artificial intelligence, in Suzman’s view, include

perhaps even a viral pandemic that exposes the obsolescence of our economic institutions and working culture, causing us to ask what jobs are truly valuable and question why we are content to let our markets rewards those in often pointless or parasitic roles so much more than those we recognise as essential.

Of course the book has the full notes and index we’d expect from an academic work, as well as an Acknowledgements section that spells out the meaning of the book: ‘we should all take a far more relaxed approach to work’. If you’re looking for a straightforward social and economic history of work, this might be too broad; if you’re looking for a challenge to the status quo in economics and a book that makes you think, this might just be for you.

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Liz Dexter works more than a few hours per day but does at least enjoy it mostly. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

James Suzman, Work: A History of How we Spend our Time (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1526604996, 444 pp., hardback.

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