future of work

There Is Nothing Natural About the Way We Work

The conditions are right for substantial change – but what exactly will that change look like?
January 19, 2021, 11:04am

The anthropologist James Suzman remembers well the man who taught him to hunt and track in the Kalahari Desert. When you’ve spent the day hunting and you come home to enjoy what you’ve caught, the man said, “your heart is happy, your legs are heavy and your belly is full”.

The hunter in question was Ju’hoansi, a “bushman” of southern Africa. He was describing an activity that, for 150,000 years, had been the primary occupation of his people. That feeling of deep satisfaction at the end of a working day is rare for many workers across the world. We are alienated, and have been for centuries. We have to work in order to survive, but while we are told to love what we do and that our workplaces are our families, meaningful work that also pays the bills is harder and harder to come by. 

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Real wages for most have been stagnant for decades, inequality is growing for more than 70 percent of the world’s population and 40 years of neoliberalism have left gaping holes in social safety nets. Work-related stress is the most common form of stress in the UK – one poll found that only 1 percent of employees had never experienced it – while 1.6 million workers are suffering more generally from work-related ill health.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought these interlocking crises into focus. A vast recession is underway. Calls for shorter working weeks, renewed and expanded free public services and universal basic income are becoming ever more urgent as a result.    

What kind of change the pandemic brings is still up for debate. Joe Biden and the British government are both fond of the slogan “Build back better”, which appeals to politicians because it could mean absolutely anything. If you’re Boris Johnson, you might think that “building back better” means handing billions of pounds of public money to companies connected to the Conservative Party. Historical advances made by workers, including the creation of the weekend and shorter working days, were all hard won. There is no guarantee the pandemic will make anything easier. 

“Our relationship to work can change under capitalism, because it has,” says the American journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of the forthcoming book Work Won’t Love You Back. “It can change. It might get worse.” Aidan Harper, researcher at the New Economics Foundation and co-author of The Case for a Four-Day Week, believes that cultural norms – “the natural conservatism that tends to believe that, if things change, it will be for the worse” – need to be overcome in order to bring about a shift in our attitude towards work.

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Both Jaffe and Harper, as well as unions and activist movements across the world, see an opening to push for positive change. Harper believes the pandemic has shown people that, actually, things like working from home and flexible working hours are entirely possible.

“People found work to do, but that work was much more satisfying than their jobs,” says Suzman, referring to the hobbies people took up during the first lockdown, with the British government’s furlough scheme in place. One pharmaceutical executive told me that observing how his employees had responded to life on a form of basic income had left him wondering if they would accept returning to the kind of working life they had before. “The genie’s out of the bottle,” he said. 

Once something is done, it becomes possible, and scare stories about the world falling apart without workers chained to office desks become less effective. Left-leaning politicians and unions across Europe are saying the time has come for a four-day week. In Germany, the proposal is being spearheaded by the powerful metalworkers union, which has already had success in reducing hours for industrial workers. And with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ wealth exploding to over $150 billion since March of 2020, Progressive International has launched a campaign to “Make Amazon Pay”. 

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An Amazon worker wearing a Jeff Bezos mask during a strike to demand better working conditions. November, 2018. Photo: Marcos del Mazo / Alamy Live News

The working world as we know it has come to seem normal, but the writing and research of anthropologists like Suzman and the late David Graeber – which looks at human history from an outsider’s point of view – can help us understand that there is nothing “natural” about this state of affairs. Recognising that it has been shaped over time can lead us to imagine – and then realise – different realities. As the author Ursula Le Guin put it: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Graeber begins the 2013 essay that led to his book Bullshit Jobs by referencing the economist John Maynard Keynes, who in the 1930s wrote that, by the beginning of the 21st century, technological progress would have brought us to a “promised land” in which our basic needs were satisfied and in which nobody worked more than 15 hours a week. Four decades earlier, in 1891, Oscar Wilde envisaged in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” a socialist society of the future in which the horrible jobs he saw all around him were done by machines, helping free everyone up to become the artist of their own lives.

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In fact, if technology isn’t taking our jobs in the form of automation, it’s keeping us working, clocking our hours and enabling us to be contacted any time of day or night. The pandemic has made many jobs almost entirely dependent on technology and, working from home, we are always reachable.

Graeber saw too that technology had created a whole range of jobs that were, effectively, pointless. “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul,” he wrote. A poll commissioned after the essay was published found that 37 percent of people in the UK did indeed think their job was “pointless”.

James Suzman has spent much of his life studying the Ju’hoansi; their brutal encounters with the modern economy from the 1960s onwards have informed his new book - already published in the UK and forthcoming in the US - Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, which tells the story of human history through the prism of work. 

One of the book’s central points is that, for 95 percent of our history, humans were hunter-gatherers and had a very different approach to occupation. We worked just enough to secure our short-term needs and didn’t store food. The advent of farming 10,000 years ago, Suzman argues, revolutionised “fiercely egalitarian”, environmentally sustainable hunter-gathering societies, and created, he tells me, “this utter fetishisation of scarcity that is baked into our cultural institutions, our practices and norms, and which drives our fixation with growth. Because how do you deal with scarcity? You work hard.”

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The industrial revolution put this into overdrive, and today “half our economy is based around trying to make people buy stuff they don’t really want to buy”. 

There are many different responses – both collective and personal – to this situation. Suzman tells me about getting “thoroughly pissed” following an event in London with Mark Boyle, who became known as the “moneyless man” because he lived without using currency for a number of years. Boyle believes that money has come to replace community in modern society, and that we are separated from nature and from what we consume. Many of us may agree with that assessment, but few of us will do what the Irish activist has done and move to a cabin we built ourselves, which has no running water or mains electricity. 

The communal activism being done within the system includes agitating for shorter working weeks, pushing for the introduction of universal basic income (whereby every citizen would receive a wage, whether in or out of work) and calls – previously championed by Britain’s Labour Party – for free broadband internet and other free public services, including transport.

Software company Buffer responded to the pandemic by switching to a four-day working week. Microsoft Japan trialled the same approach in 2019 and saw a 40 percent jump in productivity. While Brits work more than most of our European neighbours, we lag behind them in terms of productivity – something that had already led to various UK companies adopting a four-day week, even before the pandemic.  

Shorter working weeks and basic income schemes can take us down the road toward more fulfilled lives, but questions about how we occupy ourselves remain. If we spend most of our life working, isn’t it imperative that we do something that is at least somewhat worthwhile? Furthermore, what even is “work”?

For Suzman, work involves “purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end”. As such, he tells me it is natural for human beings that “our evolutionary history has made us purposeful creatures”, and that “there’s a deep psychological urge to do stuff”. The issue is that the jobs we are forced to do often bear little resemblance to purposeful work. “Where I see the problem lying,” he says, “is in how we constitute jobs – and that’s to do with how we organise our economic institutions and our economic incentives.”

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Those institutions and incentives are quite different to the remnants of what he found in the Kalahari. Until Western outsiders actually spent some time observing groups like the Ju’hoansi, they had assumed hunter-gatherers were forever on the point of starvation. In fact, as Suzman discovered, the Ju’hoansi had only needed to work for 15 hours a week, and that work consisted of hunting and gathering and a similar number of hours on domestic chores and providing shelter. The rest of the time, they took a load off, hung out and played games.

This way of life was destroyed from the 1960s onwards by white landowners and the Apartheid government that backed them. Today, a scattering of hunter-gatherer societies exists around the world, from the Arctic to the Amazon, but as Survival International notes, they face “oppressive external threats to their lands, health and ways of life”. You can go a long way to escape the modern economy, but it will find you in the end.

Environmentally sustainable modes of living have, in the course of a few hundred years, been destroyed by an extractive capitalist system that has brought our planet to the point of destruction.

Suzman first did fieldwork with the Ju’hoansi on white-owned farms which, he told me, were like “very brutal gulags”. The question of work was at the heart of a series of divisions between the coloniser and the colonised. Farmers complained that the bushmen were lazy, while for the Ju’hoansi, “the market economy and the assumptions that underwrite it are as bewildering as they are frustrating”.

Sarah Jaffe references the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci when she tells me that such assumptions are the product of history – material forces that shift with material conditions.

In the age of Fordism, Jaffe says, unionised American workers clocked in and clocked out. They didn’t have to pretend to love their work: it was often repetitive, but it paid pretty well and allowed for a decent standard of living. This was also deemed “men’s work”, and Jaffe sees a gendered change in the makeup of working class jobs today, with jobs in hospitals, social care and the service industry taking the place of heavy industry.

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Today’s workplace, too, is defined by a culture that demands employees love what they do, buying into the company brand (one games company calls itself a “Fampany”) while being afforded far less job security. Either way, we are battling still against what the late Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”, the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative”.

In opposition to this, Jaffe’s book profiles a wide range of workers fighting for better conditions, and also shows how powerful the kind of hegemony Gramsci defined remains. Jaffe writes that she often asks people what they would do if they didn’t have to work, and that while she hears answers relating to spending more time with family and friends, or pursuing different interests, harassed workers tend to always return to the fact that a life without work is impossible and almost unthinkable.

While James Suzman wrote his book before the pandemic, if anything, its arrival only confirmed some of his thinking. “It reaffirmed my basic instincts – that lots of the jobs we do rob us of that essential satisfaction of creating, doing and making.” 

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John McDonnell. November, 2019. Photo: REUTERS / Henry Nicholls

For Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, something similar has happened in terms of policy. Before the 2019 election, Labour proposed gradually reducing the working week to 32 hours over the course of a decade. McDonnell tells me this was done “in the context of the historic Labour and Trade Union campaigns to reduce the working day and working week largely stalling since the 1970s. I set it also in the context of workers sharing more fairly in the growth of the economy.”

The policy, like that of free broadband internet for all, proved controversial at the time. The Sun ran articles in which it was suggested the policy would “wreck the economy” and in which Labour was “accused of copying Venezuela”. “The Tories and their media allies distorted the proposals, but interestingly the concept has doggedly persisted,” McDonnell says. 

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“The pandemic has opened up the debate more widely,” he adds. “I predict that increasingly the reduction in working hours and working week will be seen as inevitable, and just a matter of time before it takes hold across the whole economy.”

In July, Survation found that 63 percent of people across the UK backed a move to a four-day working week. Public support for more generous welfare benefits – another issue Labour campaigned on with McDonnell as shadow chancellor – are also at a 20-year high

Any radical restructuring of our working lives will face stiff resistance from wealthy business owners and their political allies, who have been the big winners of the pandemic and who have had a large hand in shaping a culture in which work is fetishised above all else. Shorter working weeks will be dismissed as being bad for business – companies will say they can’t afford to pay people the same salary to work fewer hours. 

The deep link sociologist Max Weber explored over a century ago, between the protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, still sits in the heart of our culture, and anyone who seeks to have us work less will be told that what they are really doing is suggesting we all become lazier. In Britain, successive governments have very effectively fostered an environment in which people feel as though everyone should be working as hard - and suffering as much – as they are, with any thought that life could be improved in any way scornfully derided. 

But even some of the big winners in our working world recognise the crisis taking place in capitalism. The desire to maintain a solvent customer base has led to a number of Silicon Valley executives supporting the idea of universal basic income. The system will look to save itself. But the idea that working all the time – particularly when there is less and less viable work to do – is the answer to our problems will, with the right political opposition, come under ever-increasing pressure. 

This battle will go far beyond whether policies like a four-day week can be adopted. It will go deep into the fabric of our culture and society. It will involve recognising, along with anthropologists like Suzman and Graeber, that there is nothing natural about a world in which people die because they can’t find work, or because they work too much. That there is nothing natural about a world in which people spend the majority of their time doing tasks they find pointless, and which benefit no one around them. That there is nothing natural about a world in which people are unable to spend time with their friends and family. 

This battle has been going on already for a long time. It takes in not just our economic system, but our whole way of being. After all, when she set about shaping the world we live in now, Margaret Thatcher said this: “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.”

@oscarrickettnow