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I Never Took a Day Off in My Twenties

What do hunter-gatherers and economists know about a 15-hour work week?

Key points

  • In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that within 100 years, technological advances would allow most people to only work 15 hours a week.
  • Anthropologist James Suzman explains that hunter-gatherer societies spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs.
  • Today, surveys find that the vast majority of high-earning individuals work well over 50 hours a week.

When Bill Gates was asked about work-life balance at a conference, he said, “I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one.”

Microsoft used to have a “no vacation, no weekends” policy in their early days. A lot has changed since then, but the sentiment might still help answer an age-old question: Just how hard should we work, really?

Microsoft’s co-founder is certainly not the only dedicated person who wants to get things done. Harvard Business Review ran surveys on the topic, and they found that the vast majority of high-earning individuals work well over 50 hours a week. CEOs average 62.5 hours per week, and they also do business on weekends—putting in 3.9 hours on average on days they shouldn’t even be working.

Sound a bit excessive?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which the economist attempted to predict the future during the bottom years of the Great Depression. Keynes wrote that within 100 years (by 2030), humanity would be so much more technologically advanced that the problem of scarcity would already be solved, and we would only have to work 15 hours a week.

It’s interesting to see how Keynes was both right and wrong at the same time. He did get the technological advancement part right; compared to the 1930s, we live in an age of extraordinary abundance, and most of us probably shouldn’t work as hard as we do just to put food on the table.

Was life actually better in the Stone Age?

James Suzman spent 30 years studying and living with one of the world’s enduring hunter-gatherer societies. His work with the Ju/’hoansi people in southern Africa has provided a unique lens into our modern obsession with work.

As Suzman writes in his new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, hunter-gatherer societies spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs. Despite being deeply impoverished by modern standards, they considered themselves affluent.

Many anthropologists blame farming for the change in our relationship to time and work. Then people began to establish cities and that changed what they aspired for. Being around so many people all at once meant that jealousy or desire—rather than absolute need—started driving their decisions.

Most of us are urban creatures now. We get our sense of identity, community, and purpose from work and the workplace. As we’ve invented more technology and gotten richer, we’ve developed new needs and desires, new forms of status competition.

And so it happens that, unlike in the distant past, the more money you make now, the more hours you generally work. It used to be that the point of being rich was to not have to work. In the new social value system, the reward for making a lot of money is you get to do even more work.

They pretend to pay us

In Keynes’s world, whether someone continued to work beyond what was necessary to meet their needs was a question of habit.

What we see in our modern life, however, is that extremely demanding jobs often require employees to work extra hours. Work has become central to the life of many of us. It defines our identity.

We can observe this when someone becomes unemployed. A person whose job is cut generally suffers as a result, and others who quit or even just take a sabbatical frequently need to explain themselves to their peers.

Work is everything in our culture, and if our culture doesn’t demand that we work all the time, we may stop. In the former Soviet economy, with its “guaranteed” employment and low-labor productivity, wages were linked to someone’s loyalty more than to their performance. No wonder work wasn’t central to most people’s lives, and so the catchphrase was born: “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.”

What doesn’t add up

Before, many economists set income thresholds at a point where they thought all human needs would be met and we’d only be working on things that make us happy.

Keynes and many other thinkers before him, such as Oscar Wilde or Bertrand Russell, thought that, by now, people would be devoting their lives to things that are meaningful to them. Your day would go like this: Get your work done in a few hours, and then you have free time for leisure.

It just so happens that, in our modern urban world, there actually isn’t a whole lot of life outside of work for most people. Some of the hardest working people are actually the ones who should have to work the least. It’s as if the reward for work were more work.

In this age when we’re all connected, there’s always someone who’s more successful than we are. When I was growing up, I ran a small startup at the age of 19. I should have felt pretty good about myself. But being successful in the small community of my hometown meant nothing if I compared my accomplishments to those of Bill Gates’s.

This might be a good exercise to try the next time you think you’re not successful enough. Ask yourself: Do my actual peers—my family and people in my neighborhood—think that I am successful? If yes, then comparing yourself to people on TV or Twitter shouldn’t count.

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