Numerous commentators have opined about how crazy it is that our wages have stagnated while our productivity has soared, and that’s a valid point to make, but few mention that we also work longer hours.
And not only are we individually working longer hours, when you factor in that fewer parents stay at home and instead go into the paid workforce, the grand total for families rises to around 500 hours more per year in the monetized economy.
Of course, so far we’re only talking about what has happened since the 1970s. The history of work goes back much farther. Anthropologists tell us that the earliest human societies, hunter-gatherer societies, worked less than 20 hours per week. Among the !Kung people, no one was expected to work until they were well into their twenties; nor were people expected to work past age 40. Hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than any subsequent civilized societies.
With all our computers and labor-saving devices, you’d think that we could do better than the most primitive societies, but somehow we’ve ended up with a standard work week that is more than twice as long. How did this happen?
After approximately 190,000 years of leisurely hunter-gatherer existence, humans began to settle down and grow crops and raise livestock. Agriculture required longer work hours but also made possible the accumulation of wealth. This combination of more work and more wealth gave rise to the Mammon economy (to use Jesus’ nomenclature); it wasn’t long before some people were wealthier than others and used their wealth to subjugate other people – as low wage workers, debt slaves, conquered people slaves, etc. – who were forced to work even longer hours but without the attendant wealth accumulation.
Periodically throughout history, oppressed people would rise up against this oppression, often resulting in, among other things, a shortening of the workday. In time, however, the workday would lengthen again as the wealthy regained lost power and used it to squeeze more work from the common people.
In early America, workers worked 12-14 hour days. A hard fought struggle by organized labor brought the workday down to 10 hours. Then another, even longer, struggle brought it down to 8 hours. Another battle in the 1930s attempted to bring the work week down to 30 hours, but a sophisticated PR campaign by the captains of industry convinced American society that buying more stuff is more desirable than working less, and so that is where we have been stuck ever since.
What this survey of history tells us is that, even in America, before we were convinced that getting more stuff is the highest priority, the common people fought to get their time back, not merely to make more money. People valued time; time for relationships, time for creative pursuits, time for rest.
But time enjoyed by the common people is precisely what the captains of industry feared; they feared – for good reason, given the history of labor struggle – that the people would use some of this extra time to organize against them. John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers declared, “Nothing breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”
Of course, he was right. Leisure time, the lack of oppressive work, can have a radicalizing affect; a person may come to believe that she/he should not be subject to meaningless, soul-destroying work that mostly enriches someone else far removed. Such beliefs are, in fact, quite radical; and by “radical” I mean “of, relating to or proceeding from a root . . . of or relating to the origin.”
Original human societies, the hunter-gatherer societies that I mentioned earlier, required no such meaningless, soul-destroying work for the purpose of building somebody else’s or even one’s own wealth. These primitive societies were fiercely egalitarian, shared their possessions and food, and worked, in comparison to us, very little. (The Hadza are another extant hunter-gatherer group that anthropologists believe has preserved much of this lifeway.) They were free of oppression, free of excess possessions, and, compared to us, free of worry. They lived daily by the abundance that the earth provides.
Jesus was a radical. He did not believe in long workdays and the accumulation of wealth. His teachings reflect the deep wisdom of primitive humanity: “Do not store up treasures on earth . . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them…” (Matthew 6:19, 25-26).
Perhaps we should reconsider our obsession with work and wealth, as well as our comfort with economic disparity, and give ourselves a break.
Bert Newton is the Author of Subversive Wisdom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel
This article first appeared at Mennonite World Review.