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What Work Says About a Society

You may work because you have to or because you want to and the latter is worse.

Key points

  • Hunter-gatherers worked less than people do today. A tribe in the Philippines spent about 20 hours per week out of camp searching for food.
  • The Industrial Revolution brought rising wages. The consumption of luxury goods, such as tea and sugar, increased exponentially.
  • Modern workers enjoy shorter working hours than workers in 17th-century England but spend a great deal more of their wages on luxury goods.

How hard people work in different societies, and at different points in history, offers a fascinating glimpse into both their quality of life and aspiration for improvement. Hunter-gatherers worked a lot less than we do today.

The Leisured Hunter-Gatherer

The argument for continuous improvement in the quality of life has always been shaky but never more so than at a time when economic excesses are trashing the planet and bringing ever-worsening extreme weather events to our doorsteps. The fact that our society is becoming ever more complex, and using ever more energy, is not a sign of improvement but of unsustainable excess.

The last time that we lived sustainably, we were hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was typically leisured. We followed the zen road to affluence, as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called it (1). This means that our needs were modest and therefore easily met from the surrounding environment.

Diet is a big determinant of how busy animals are. Predators are notoriously lazy whereas vegetarians (i. e., herbivores) spend most of their waking days in search of food. The difference is explainable in terms of the greater energy density of meat.

As consumers of both meat and vegetable food, our ancestors might have been expected to fall somewhere in the middle of the range but we are actually close to the lazy extreme of predators. So, a similar-sized predator, like a lion, hunts for around six hours per day and rests, or sleeps, the rest of the time.

Hunter-gatherers were definitely at the predator end of the spectrum in terms of daily activity. This was partly because we were good at finding energy-dense vegetable foods, such as nutritious roots, nuts, or honey. It may also reflect our capacity to cook food that made more of the energy digestible.

Recent research on the Agta tribe in the Philippines found that, as hunter-gatherers, they spent about 20 hours per week out of camp in search of food (2). When the Agta transitioned to agriculture, their workweek increased by 50 percent to a still enviable 30 hours on the job. This level of effort would be on the low end in subsistence farming societies where workloads twice this heavy are common during times of planting and harvest.

Following the Industrial Revolution, there was a steady increase in real wages and far fewer hours of work were required to purchase food, clothing, shelter and other necessities (3). Rising disposable income meant that more earnings were spent on luxury goods, a trend that actually goes back to the 17th century when consumption of “luxury” goods like tea and sugar increased exponentially (4).

Rising wages also brought down the length of the workweek. Modern workers enjoy about three times as much free time from work (3). We are nowhere close to the 20-hour workweek of hunter-gatherers but we are a long way from the 60-hour ordeal of 17th-century farm laborers.

The Dedicated Consumer

The reduction of our workweek and the consequent return of more leisure to our lives raises interesting questions about how we spend our time and the different meaning of leisure for denizens of the digital age compared to subsistence foragers. (People close to the bottom of the ladder may spend all of their time working, however.)

The dedicated consumption of luxury goods that emerged in 17th-century England began with simple indulgences, such as sugar. Operators of small weaving businesses in northern England splurged on fine furniture, fancy quilts, lace curtains, and china (4).

They worked very long hours so as to pay for such luxuries. This may have been the first time in history when it was possible to climb the social ladder by working hard.

Modern workers enjoy shorter working hours and also spend a great deal more of their wages on luxury goods (3). With extensive credit-card debt, consumption of inessential goods is out of control (5). This increases economic growth but damages the planet through carbon pollution.

We still work longer hours than hunter-gatherers did. Even when we are not at work, we remain economically active, continually using goods and services and spending money. Anyone who ever experienced a Black Friday sale stampede knows that leisure has never been so onerous.


1 Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the original affluent society. In R.B. Lee and I. deVore (Eds.) Man the hunter (pp.85-89). New York: Aldine.

2 Dyble, M., Thorley, J., Page, A.E., Smith, D. & Migliano, A.B. (2019), Engagement in agricultural work is associated with reduced leisure time among Agta hunter-gatherers Nature Human Behaviour, 2019 DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0614-6

3 Floud, R., Fogel, R. W., Harris, B., & Hong, S. C. (2011). The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the Western world since 1700. Cambridge, England: NBER/Cambridge University Press.

4 de Vries, Jan (2008). The industrious revolution: Consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. New York: Cambridge University Press.

5 Barber, N. (2020). Evolution in the here and now: How adaptation and social learning explain humanity. Guilford, CT.:Prometheus/Rowman and Littlefield.…