We're living in a time of extraordinary abundance, yet we work as much, if not more, than we ever did, even though we've long since passed the income thresholds when past economists believed we'd work 15-hour weeks.
Ezra Klein spoke to the anthropologist James Suzman, who has spent the past 30 years studying the hunter-gatherer Ju/'hoansi people of southern Africa. This is a lightly edited extract from their conversation.
The big counterintuitive argument of your work is that humanity actually had figured out a 15-hour workweek, but our very advances in technology and income and productivity are actually the things that are getting us further from it. Tell me about that.
James Suzman: Hunter-gatherer populations like the Ju/'hoansi had much less than we do in a material sense, and were deeply impoverished by modern standards, yet they consider themselves affluent and enjoyed a degree of affluence as a result of that.
We seem to be trapped in this cycle of ever pursuing more and greater growth, greater wealth, greater anything. It seems that our aspirations continue to grow endlessly. And we're caught in this kind of treadmill in which we never stop and actually enjoy the rewards of what we have won.
Abundance doesn't come from endless production, but from effectively regulating what you want, because then you can actually produce enough and fulfill that level. How do the Ju/'hoansi regulate want?
In hunter-gatherer life, there was a real sense that if anybody tries to accumulate resources or dominate the distribution and flow of resources, it is socially unhealthy. It produces tensions. It produces anxieties. It produces a hierarchy or an attempted hierarchy. It adds a whole level of risk and cost to the social life of the group.