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Could the Future of Work Look Like Hunter-Gatherers?

Book Review
Curriculum Review

There’s a default assumption about the economic world, in James Suzman’s understanding, and that’s what John Maynard Keynes coined as the “economic problem.” The inhabitants of the world have needs that the resources of the world can’t satiate. We face a material scarcity, the Keynian logic goes.

In his new book, Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, Suzman uses some 400 pages to show Keynes’ diagnosis is misguided. Abandoning the economic problem as our default “provides us with a new lens through which to view our deep historical relationship with work from the very beginnings of life to the very busy present,” Suzman writes.

Our relationship with work is the story Suzman sets out to tell. For a universal, un-Keynesed definition of work, one “hunter-gatherers, pinstriped derivatives traders, calloused substance farmers, and anyone else would agree on,” Suzman offers this: “It involves purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end.”

The nature of energy and of hunter-gatherer cultures are central for Suzman. He unfolds the contrasts between “developed” economies and ancient ones, remarkably including some hunter-gatherer societies that continued into the last century. Suzman pictures the divorce of physical work from physical needs as tectonic. In the absence of the tactile fruits of labor, we moderns pivoted the goal of work from living to making a living, to provision against scarcity.

If that sounds pointed, you’re right. Work is an idea-driven history, one in which Suzman aggressively places human expenditure of energy in global context. Still, he’s honest about the prospect of returning to pre-agricultural economies, just like we should be honest about the lessons they offer.

James Suzman
Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots