© Chris Frazer Smith
November 2021 − Bright Minds
In order to understand our essence and our very nature, as well as our relationship with work, anthropologist James Suzman has returned to the origins of humankind. Four theses from his book “Work – A History of How We Spend Our Time” inspire both thought and change.
Boredom – The Key to Creativity
For roughly 30,000 years, our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer communities. They spent a mere 15 hours per week collecting food – what we call “work” – explains Suzman. His conclusion: humans are not, in fact, workaholics. “One thing that sets us apart from many other species is our strong desire to turn boredom into creativity”, he writes. Our ancestors most likely used the remaining time satisfying their curiosity and engaging in creative pursuits: even Newton’s, Einstein’s and Descartes’ significant discoveries can be attributed to boredom. Therefore, in order to design a new future, we will need more freedom.
The Economic System is Flexible
Anthropologists agree that the agricultural revolution was a major step in the evolution of humankind. Whereas hunter-gatherers were content acquiring the things that satisfied their immediate needs, the worry of “not having enough” only took hold once humans had settled down. Today, humankind is producing more than it can consume. Suzman considers the “economy of scarcity” the greatest misconception in history – and it continues to this day. We could end this race for more by realizing that we already have enough, and we could learn to need less. Furthermore, the energy of our planet is finite. Suzman advocates for more mindfulness in the ways that we use this energy.
Use Energy More Wisely
Despite increasing automation, structures were built with the goal of employing – ideally – every single adult. Anthropologist David Graeber divided occupations into useful professions and “bullshit jobs”. While, according to Suzman, this kind of categorization is of course subjective, surveys show that more and more people are dissatisfied with their work. If we were all to work in “meaningful occupations” – in hospitals, schools or agriculture – each individual worker would have to work and accomplish less on average. The newfound energy thus liberated could then be used to design the future. In order to make this possible, we will have to free ourselves from wanting ever more, as well as from the traditional ideas of which jobs deserve special recognition.
The Time for Change is Right Now!
History shows us how adaptable our species really is. “We are capable of quickly becoming accustomed to new, completely unfamiliar ways of thinking and acting and incorporating new habits within a short period of time”, says Suzman. The challenges posed by climate change require us to rethink and find new solutions. The pandemic, too, has created a momentum and posed questions which we had never before asked ourselves: which jobs are, in fact, “meaningful and valuable”? Why do we not reward those people the most whose work is significant? How do we want to work in the future? Suzman believes that questions such as these can become catalysts for change.
“We can dare to be courageous.”
Dr. Suzman, how far away are we from an identity crisis?
James Suzman: Ever since the industrial revolution, the rapidly changing nature of work has sparked identity crises; certain highly qualified professions and trades, and thus people within these communities, have been made redundant by automation. This continues to be the case today, especially since fewer and fewer people pursue a “job for life”. The pandemic allowed a large number of people to work from home. Perhaps this is a sign that in the future we may find an increased sense of community and feeling of belonging among the people with whom we live, rather than among those with whom we work.
What are the responsibilities of companies during this process?
There are companies that are prepared to experiment with the configuration of our working lives by introducing flexible working hours, by trying out the four-day-week or by making sure that even the lowest paid employees receive more than minimum wage. The actual driver of change, however, must have a broader base and address the economic institutions which shape our working life.
What could be a first step in the right direction?
Now is the time to experiment and be courageous. We have learned from the pandemic that we do, in fact, possess plenty of resources which will allow us to dare and be ambitious when it comes to experimentation. The experiment that I would like to see is a real and universal basic income – on a national level and, importantly, one that includes everyone, rich and poor. I believe this would the right way, morally – and not only in the short term. This approach would also harbor the potential to recalibrate our relationship with work and with endless economic growth.