Automation may bring the realisation that we're not hard-wired to work

Dubbed “the original affluent society”, modern humans could learn a lot from hunter-gatherers' attitude to work.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

For those of us not tormented by visions of a Terminator-style dystopia, the most urgent question posed by automation is: “What will people do if robots take their jobs?” The same problem troubled John Maynard Keynes, who suggested in 1930 that within a century, capital growth, technological advances and productivity gains could create an economic utopia in which nobody would need 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,” Keynes wrote. “If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.”

By mankind’s “traditional purpose”, Keynes meant our urge to work. By the “economic problem”, he meant 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 we ever did, even though our species has long since surpassed the productivity and technological thresholds that were thought necessary to solve 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 moulds our political landscape.

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

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

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

Unlike modern humans, hunter-gatherers had few wants that were easily satisfied. It was for this reason that they were dubbed “the original affluent society”.

While agriculture proved far more productive than hunting and gathering, it  exposed growing populations to a range of new and terrifying risks, from crop failure-induced famines to diseases that migrated from livestock. The need to mitigate these risks placed an unprecedented premium on human labour. 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 is that most of this energy is automated.

We have reached an inflection 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 so well fed by those who still work in agriculture that we throw away almost as much food each year as we consume.

Our preoccupation with keeping everybody endlessly productive risks harming our and many other species’ future. Most of the strategies proposed for dealing with problems such as 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 on how to find new work for those nudged out by robots and artificial intelligence.

But we should draw comfort from the knowledge that we are not genetically hard-wired to work. Automation provides exactly the opportunity we need to rethink our relationship with the workplace and relinquish our dangerous obsession with economic growth.

James Suzman is an anthropologist and the author of “Affluence without Abundance” (Bloomsbury) 

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old