THE STUDY of working life tends to be dominated by economists, management consultants and business-school professors. So it is nice to get a new perspective. James Suzman, an anthropologist, provides that fresh appraisal in an ambitious new book called “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time”.
Mr Suzman’s interpretation has a quasi-Biblical feel in which hunter-gatherers, like the Ju/’hoansi tribesmen of southern Africa whom he has studied, lived in the garden of Eden. They worked only 15 hours a week and shared their provisions equally. Then came “the fall” and the arrival of agriculture, which brought with it hierarchical societies, inequality, harder work and poorer diets. Farming’s only, but crucial, advantage was that the pastoralists were able to outbreed the hunter-gatherers and eventually displace them from the land.
Farming also brought a change of mentality. Hunter-gatherers may occasionally go short of food but they are rarely short of time. Agriculture is more driven by the calendar: a time to plant and a time to harvest. It also requires regular maintenance: weeding of plants, milking of cows and mending of fences. Human life became more regimented.
The seasonal nature of agriculture also had implications. Grain needed to be stored and those who controlled the stores became the elite. This led to...
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