What the Kalahari Bushmen can teach us about a 15 hour work week

Time for work, but also time for play.
Time for work, but also time for play.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Understanding the low-tech culture of the hunting and gathering Kalahari Bushmen may  help us to embrace the AI-automated, robot-driven future that looks likely to rob many of us of our jobs. More than this, it may hold the key to unlocking the economic Utopia that the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted would happen in our lifetimes.

For those not plagued by visions of a Terminator-style dystopia, the most pressing problem posed by ever-greater automation is the question of what people will do if robots take their jobs.

The same problem also bothered Keynes in 1930 when he argued that by 2030, capital growth, technological advances and improvements in productivity would usher in an economic Utopia in which nobody needed to work more than 15 hours a week. “We have been expressly evolved by nature-with all our impulses and deepest instincts for the purpose of solving the economic problem” he lamented. “If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.”

By “mankinds’ traditional purpose” Keynes was referring to our urge to work. By the “economic problem”, he was referring to that axiom of economics, the “problem of scarcity” which holds that we work to bridge the gap between our infinite wants and limited means.

Keynes was right to be worried. Many of us still work as hard as ever even though we have long since surpassed the productivity and technological thresholds Keynes calculated would need to be met to have solved the economic problem. More than this, work is the glue that holds our societies together; determines what, where and with whom we spend most of our time; shapes our sense of self-worth; defines our social standing and molds our political landscape.

Even so our drive to work is not an intrinsic part of who we are. And the best evidence for this comes from hunting and gathering societies who enjoyed levels of leisure time most of us could only dream of.

Research conducted among Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in the 1960s torpedoed the idea that our pre-agricultural ancestors led lives of unremitting hardship. They showed that despite the harshness of their environment they made a good living on basis of only around 15 hours work per week.

Subsequent research showed how the hunter-gatherers attitude to work stemmed from their faith in the providence of their environment coupled with their knowledge of how to exploit it. Consequently, they didn’t store food and only ever worked to meet their immediate needs, confident that there was always more to be had with a few hours of effort.

The most compelling thing about this research was that it suggested that “economic problem” was not, “the primary problem of the human race from the beginnings of time”.  For where the economic problem holds that we have unlimited wants and limited means, hunter-gatherers had few wants that were easily satisfied. It was for this reason that hunter-gatherers were famously redubbed “the original affluent society”.

When Keynes lamented the “habits and instincts bred into us over countless generations” he invoked a vision of human nature that had its origins in the Agricultural Revolution. For while agriculture was far much more productive than hunting and gathering and enabled rapid population growth it also exposed these growing populations to a range of new and terrifying risks from crop failure induced famines to diseases that migrated from their livestock. As a result, where hunter-gatherers had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environments, farmers endured constant risk.

The need to mitigate these risks inspired a range of wondrous innovations from food storage techniques to systems of exchange. It also conveyed a distinct advantage to those that were able to control the production, storage and distribution of resources thus giving rise to the problem of scarcity.  At the same time, it placed an unprecedented premium on human labor. As any farmer will tell you, how much food you get out of your land depends on how much energy you put into it. The difference now of course is that most of this energy is automated.

With the automation we have now reached an inflexion point in the history of work as important as the agricultural revolution. Most of us in the world’s richest countries enjoy lives of unparalleled material abundance. We are now so well fed by the one percent of us who still work in agriculture that we throw almost as much food into landfill every year as we consume. And with most of the rest of us working in the ever more amorphous services sector most of the work we do is aimed at keeping wheels of commerce rolling rather than ensuring that our essential needs are met.

This would be fine if we had no reason to worry that our continued preoccupation with keeping everybody endlessly productive risks cannibalizing our—and many other—species future.

Yet most strategies proposed for dealing with problems like climate change and biodiversity loss aim to find more sustainable ways for us to continue to produce and consume as much as we do. Likewise, most proposals to manage automation’s impact focus mainly on how to find new work for those nudged out by robots and AI.

But if our working culture is an artifact of the Agricultural Revolution and the economic problem has by and large been solved, then hunter-gatherers offer some clues to what we should do next. They show that even if we may be purposive, we are not biologically hard-wired to work as we do. This means that automation provides exactly the opportunity we need to rethink our relationships with the workplace, and in doing so wean us of our dangerous obsession with growth.

This is of course far easier said than done. If the hunter-gatherer model is anything to go by, then coming to grips with systemic inequality will be a precondition for having a society in which people have few wants easily met.  Recognizing that automation represents as important an inflection point in the history of work and reshape our futures is a good place to start.