November 15, 2013 6:08 pm

Why work so hard?

‘Keynes predicted that by the early 21st century the working week would be cut to 15 hours’

What do the Bushmen of the Kalahari have in common with John Maynard Keynes? In a visionary essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930), Keynes made two prophecies: first, that the Great Depression would prove to be “only a temporary period of adjustment” and that prosperity would increase for the next two generations and more. On this his prediction that living standards “one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high” was correct; we are five times better off than our grandparents or great-grandparents were in 1930 and our children may be eight times better off than them by 2030.

His second prediction was that by the early 21st century the working week would have been cut to 15 hours. Here he was dead wrong. The number of hours worked in both the US and Europe has remained pretty steady for decades, at more than 40 hours a week, with Americans working much harder than Europeans. But the 15-hour working week is not a pure pipe dream; for millennia, until the possibilities for their hunter-gatherer lifestyle were taken away, the San (Bushmen) people of southern Africa thrived, with a good diet (2,500 calories a day), on little work (two to three hours a day) and much play.

This provocative comparison was made by the anthropologist Dr James Suzman in a recent lecture for Protimos, a charitable organisation committed to providing legal assistance to marginalised communities in the developing world. The traditional lifestyle of the San, he argued, represented a kind of “primitive affluence”. Our narratives of progress, starting with Hobbes’s lines about life in the state of nature being “nasty, brutish and short”, have assumed a steady improvement in the human lot as hunter-gathering, under threat from sabre-toothed tigers, has given way to farming and then industry (under threat from sabre-toothed bosses).

For some time now anthropologists and others have cast doubt on this over-simple story. Farming did not immediately bring improvements in health and longevity. Indeed, in 1987 the geographer Jared Diamond wrote an article outlining why agriculture was the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”. With it came “the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence”. Skeletons uncovered in Greece and Turkey show that the average height for men dropped from 5ft 9in at the end of the last Ice Age to 5ft 3in in 3000BC, after the invention of agriculture.

So the myths of a golden age were not just nostalgic fantasy. Unfortunately, the San do not live in a golden age. Their condition is, in Suzman’s words, “truly grim”; they have been enveloped as governments and other entities have acquired ownership of what was once their land, turned into indentured serfs and ravaged by ill health and alcoholism. The lecture, introduced by Lord Justice Laws, had the ulterior purpose of raising funds for a legal centre dedicated to protecting the San’s intellectual property rights, which are in effect their only assets.

Helping to protect the San certainly seems a worthy cause: perhaps the most amazing moment in the evening was some footage from the BBC’s Life of Mammals showing the hunting of a kudu by a lone San hunter. The coup de grâce seemed to have a kind of grace, as an act of love as well as killing.

The lecture got me thinking – as it was designed to – not just about the San but about matters closer to home; that is, about supposedly advanced societies in the early 21st century. Why are we all so addicted to work? Why do we assume that working harder and harder is an unquestionable virtue?

This tendency reached its apogee in the recent Tory party conference in the UK with its motto “for hardworking people” (though I liked the Private Eye cover with a speech-bubble coming out of David Cameron’s mouth saying, “I thought of the slogan while I was on holiday” – Cameron being famed for his skill at chillaxing). For “hardworking” you might read “desperately overworked”. Madeleine Bunting’s disturbing 2004 book Willing Slaves revealed an epidemic of work-related stress and depression among British white-collar workers. One correspondent described the effects of “work overload” as “poor sleep quality, an inability to engage in evening conversation, a ‘Fuck it’ attitude to bills, shopping, parent phoning, friend phoning, eating and sex.” But the addiction to work goes deeper than the very real external compulsion as workforces are squeezed. There is also, as Bunting recognises, a voluntary aspect to the plague of overwork; people associate work with status and money, though if they work all the time when will they have time to enjoy it?

At the Geneva Congress in 1866, the International Association of Working Men set down its demand for an eight-hour day: “We require eight hours work, eight hours for our own instruction and eight hours for repose.” Cultivating ourselves and caring for others is also a kind of work.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

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Letter in response to this column:

Hours matter little if job is satisfying / From Mr Alistair Budd

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