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Working Too Much?

Why the grass isn’t necessarily greener in other societies.

MIT Sloan School of Management
Rahul Bhui
Source: MIT Sloan School of Management

Is the grass greener in other societies? If you are working seemingly endless hours in an industrialized society, would you have more leisure time if you packed up and moved to a remote village in the Amazon?

It’s not a crazy question, given that anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers the “original affluent society.” He argued – based on limited evidence – that hunter-gatherers enjoy abundant leisure time because they are unburdened by commercial markets, which cause people to spend more time working to pursue material things.

His theory contradicted earlier claims asserting that people in less socioeconomically complex societies work endlessly just to survive. They maintained that fewer work hours are required in market-based societies due to greater productivity.

So, who is right? Is it worth moving to a remote hunter-gatherer community for more leisure time, or are we better off staying in an industrialized society?

With patterns of work changing because of the pandemic, the question of how we work – and how much we work – stands out as particularly relevant. To better understand ourselves, we want to look at what life is like across diverse communities and back into history.

To answer these questions, my colleagues and I looked at the role of markets in how much we work.

We conducted two analyses to address this question. First, within eight small-scale societies, we analyzed a high-quality data set to see whether the proportion of work time spent on commercial activity is associated with greater total work time on an individual level. Second, we incorporated time allocation data from 14 industrialized countries compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to look at whether the commercial proportion of work time is associated with greater aggregate work time across a wide spectrum of societies.

We defined work as inclusive of commercial activities, food production, housework, manufacturing, food preparation, education, and childcare.

The results of the study were intriguing: Within and across societies, men whose work was largely commercial tended to work more overall. Men with noncommercial labor worked an average of 45 hours a week, and men with jobs linked to the market worked an average of 55 hours a week.

In other words, the more men’s tasks are linked to the market, the more they work. Men whose work was based on subsistence labor – like hunting and gathering – worked about 10 hours less a week than men in market-based jobs.

A possible explanation for the time disparity is the type of labor. Men doing more physically intense labor may work fewer hours because of the toll their work takes on their bodies. They are expending more metabolic energy to do their jobs.

Interestingly, these findings do not apply to women. In contrast to men, women across these societies already worked an average of 55 hours per week regardless of the type of work. Even in remote communities, they worked as much as highly commercial men. This finding could be a result of how we defined work, as prior studies like Sahlins’ ignored tasks like household labor and food processing, which we included.

Does this mean the grass is greener in a subsistence-oriented society? Though Sahlins was clearly onto something, you are probably going to work a lot harder than he envisioned. The original affluent society may not be quite as affluent in leisure time as he argued, particularly for women.

MIT Sloan School of Management Prof. Rahul Bhui is coauthor of “Work time and market integration in the original affluent society,” which was published by PNAS.