Why our brains still struggle with tensions between work, leisure, and the concept of time

Writer Derek Thompson recently reviewed the new James Suzman book Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots for the The Atlantic. I haven't read the book in question, but the review stuck out to me for a few reasons, as Thompson discusses the inherent tensions between leisure time and work time—how we labor in pursuit of that free time, which our society encourages us to fill with other forms of work.

Thompson (via Suzman) talks about the Ju/'hoansi, a 200,000-year-old hunter-gatherer tribe from Namibia:

The Ju/'hoansi spent an average of 17 hours a week finding food—2,140 calories daily—and devoted another 20 to chores, as Suzman gleaned from other ethnographies and firsthand research. This left them with considerably more downtime than the typical full-time employee in the U.S., who spends about 44 hours a week doing work—and that doesn't include domestic labor and child care. In that downtime, the Ju/'hoansi remained strikingly free, over centuries, from the urge to cram it with activities that we would classify as "productive" (or, for that matter, destructive). 


So how did we move from that world to a culture in which leisure exists for the sake of work—in which downtime activities (such as using social media) are strewed with performance metrics, and childhood play (such as team sports) has become a résumé enhancer? 

This resonated with me not just as someone who works (and spends his "leisure time" mostly doing the same things he does in his work time), but also as someone with ADHD. There's a popular theory that people with ADHD retain some crucial genomic ancestry with these ancient hunter-gatherer tribes, which explains why our brains refuse to conform to the sedentary structures of modern society. I don't know how true this theory is…but reading about these particular hunter-gatherers, I do feel a kinship. Thompson continues:

For hunter-gatherers, chiefs and shamans could, and did, moonlight as foragers and hunters. Overlapping duties preserved a strong sense of community, reinforced by customs and religions that obscured individual differences in strength, skill, and ambition. Shared labor meant shared values.

But in industrial economies, lawyers don't tag in for brain surgery, and drill sergeants don't harvest wheat—and the different jobs people do, requiring different skill sets, command (often vastly) different pay. As specialization spread and superior performance was rewarded, a cult of competition emerged: High achievers believed they could and should always toil harder for a fatter raise, bigger house, higher honor, or more wondrous breakthrough. Where rest once beckoned, now restlessness did. The productivity mode thrived—and it just might deserve credit (along with luck) for almost all scientific progress and technological ingenuity. But it also bears the blame for what Durkheim called a "malady of infinite aspiration," which by now we've discovered is chronic. When a recent Pew Research Center survey asked about the secret to happiness, most Americans, of all ages, ranked "a job or career they enjoy" above marriage, children, or any other committed relationship. Careerism, not community, is the keystone in the arch of life.

Thompson frames this whole review around the "Sunday Scaries" — that unique stress you feel on Sunday night, losing your leisure time to the all-consuming thoughts of the work week. "Capitalism also exists Monday through Saturday," he asks. "So why should Sunday be so uniquely anxiety-inducing?"

Maybe this focus on careerism over community is literally warping our entire sense of time, encouraging us to spend ever moment on the individual pursuit of a mythical leisure time we'll never actually get to enjoy.

How Civilization Broke Our Brains [Derek Thompson / The Atlantic]

When a 200,000-year-old culture encountered our economy [James Suzman / The Atlantic]

Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots [James Suzman]

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons