Home Economics Amazingly, We're Richer Than Bushmen

Amazingly, We’re Richer Than Bushmen



Another contender in this competition to shout that we’re all working too much. Here the comparison is to Bushmen:

Before he took his job, Suzman had spent some 15 years based among the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen” of eastern Namibia, who were notable for having sustained a foraging society well into the 20th century. And while he lived among them, he witnessed first-hand how the hunter-gatherer life was far from the constant struggle for survival many of us imagine it to have been. In 1966, a landmark anthropology paper had found that the Ju/’hoansi were generally well nourished and lived long, content lives. They used the bulk of their time to rest, or have fun. Astonishingly, they spent just 15 hours a week finding food, and they stored little for the future, trusting in the surrounding desert to provide when required.

15 hours a week for food, OK.

The average household food bill in the UK is £60 a week. The average (mean) wage in the UK is around £14 an hour. That means it takes some four and a half hours of labour a week to feed the household. And the Bushmen number? That’s per adult working hours, not per household working hours.

We’re rather richer, aren’t we? Even by this measure of time spent to provide food upon the table the Bushmen don’t bother with?

We’ve also the usual misunderstanding of Keynes:

Not long ago, we dreamed of being liberated from work altogether. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a future in which technological innovation, efficiency gains and long-term capital growth might usher in a “golden age of leisure” in which we could satisfy our needs by working no more than 15 hours a week.

But a century of efforts to reduce work disappeared after the Second World War. Though labour productivity has increased roughly four- or five-fold in industrialised nations since then, average weekly working hours have remained stubborn at just under 40 hours a week.

No they haven’t, not in the slightest. Total working hours within that base human economic unit, the household, have declined precipitately. It being the work in that household that has declined even as market working hours have not (or, more accurately, have for men and have risen for women).

In his new book, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, Suzman takes a discursive path through millennia of milestones to trace our contemporary relationship to work – and concludes that the problem is a “very simple set of assumptions about human nature, which are clearly and demonstrably wrong”.

Hope the book does rather better with this than the Guardian interview manages…..



  1. If the amount of time households work has remained the same since the 1940s, clearly Leisure Centres, Shopping Centres, Centre Parcs don’t exist, and vegging in front of the TV is a myth.

    Now excuse me, I have to boil a tub of water and soap flakes and then paddle the laundry for an hour.


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