The history of work and the myth of a leisurely past

Since Marshall Sahlins in the 1970s (and thanks to James Suzman’s Work ), a weird idea has worked its way into popular imagination: people of the past did not work much. Well, more precisely, the idea is that for most of human history our ancestors worked far less and thought very differently about work than we do now. That is based on a weird starting point and a misunderstanding of how “work” works.

The starting point is the pre-neolithic era when the vast majority of time was spent hunting and gathering. In that setting, the effort to acquire calories was modest largely because food was abundant relative to a tiny human population. Some early estimates suggest that, because of that relative endowment, people worked maybe less than 20 hours per week hunting and gathering. Some say even less. That is probably correct and also wrong.

Notice that I italicized hunting and gathering above suggesting that the time commitment of these two tasks was quite small. However, this is not the sum of all work people did then. One has to understand that nomadic groups were nomad in part because the largest share of their calories was also quite mobile. This meant moving around significantly to track food under a key constraint — that calories from gathering be available.

This meant that people moved from “oasis” to “oasis” or from “patch” to “patch”. Between each patch/oasis, there was a lot of time spent “in transit” (let’s call this d for dead time). That time is technically not work for hunting or gathering — but it is work. Not counting it is a mistake.

To see how it matters, consider the graph below which depicts a forager who moves between oases/patches where food is available. As they stay in a oasis, the yield of food y is marginally decreasing so that at one point he may have an incentive to move on. When he moves on, he incurs the cost d which is dead time while moving. Suppose also that a single oasis/patch per year (which encompasses multiple time periods) is insufficient to survive the year. Thus, multiple patches must be exploited. Supposing that all oases are equally distant, of equal quality and that there are many oases in total, how can we picture the decision to move to another? If you want to maximize your food intake over a long period of time, you have to go to multiple oases in a year. This is where we introduce the dashed blue line which is the total yield from all oases/patches divided by time. Notice that it starts at origin so that we are capturing the cost of d.

Figure 1: How people in the past worked

These two lines tell us that you stay at a single oasis until its marginal return is inferior to the average yield over all oases/patches. Why does this matter? Well, imagine the implications if each patch is less productive? You have to move more to reach a certain target and incur d more frequently. That effectively means that you have to exploit a greater territory to meet a certain target of food (e.g. survival).

The estimate of time spent hunting and gathering are essentially the time within patches rather than the time spent for all patches. Thus, there is a massive underestimate. The yield on a single oasis/patch was so low in the pre-neolithic that moving was something that clans did often. In the late Ice Age, family groups apparently moved every 3-6 days. Modern nomads in certain regions move some 400 km per year. At 5km/h, this is 80 hours of work per year. However, that 5km/h is too high as there were children to carry which slow things down. At 3km/h, we are talking 133 hours per year (or roughly 2.6 extra hours per week). This is just dead time but it is work. As such, more exhaustive worktime estimates suggest values of 35 to 43 hours per week. Most western countries are below this level. Moreover, it is worth considering that work started at young ages and there was no retirement. With shorter lives and earlier work-entry, a smaller fraction of awake life-time was spent in leisurely pursuits. Ergo, it is insanely likely that no society today exhibits more “life-time” work than the prehistoric humans.

Finally, it is worth pointing out the very obvious. The introduction of agriculture, by removing the need to move around and also reducing variability in calories (i.e. fewer chances of catastrophes), essentially increased the benefit of working (i.e. making leisure relatively costlier). It is unsurprising then that the introduction of agriculture led to some increases in labor supply. However, that being said, it is clearly false than we work more today than our prehistoric ancestors did. There is no way around it.

2 thoughts on “The history of work and the myth of a leisurely past

  1. Debt Exile November 7, 2021 / 1:26 pm

    I’m sorry, but this argument is awful, despite the intuitively obvious conclusion. First, you needlessly assign an equation to the task with variables so utterly devoid of context they are laughably meaningless (Oases? which landscape are we talking about? Which kind of diet? What about competition from other predators? What kind kind of caloric intake can we expect from gathering?). Second, you simply redefine work away from modern definitions, but in so doing, you must use the same redefinition for modern contexts to maintain comparability, otherwise it is intellectually dishonest. If we count ‘work time’ as movement, then clealy commuting, carting around the kids, grocery shopping (ie. gathering), paying the bills for the commute and the shelter, determining the correct insurances, taxes, investment decisions (keeping the individual alive through keeping the tribe alive), etc… are all also ‘work’. Modern society is thus mostly just work (at least for those with kids and jobs)!

    Better suggestion: technology reduces tedious physical work. Here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN-34JfUrHY

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  2. Scott Buchanan November 10, 2021 / 7:27 pm

    I don’t know about pre-neolithic hunters, but I can tell you that people a hundred years ago worked a lot harder than us today. My grandfather was part of a whole generation fled from farm to city in the first third of the twentieth century. It was back breaking labor, physically and economically perilous, and he transferred to a city job as soon as he could find a position.

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