In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the century, the average workweek would be about 15 hours. Automation had already begun to replace many jobs by the early 20th century, and Keynes predicted that the trend would accelerate to the point where all that people need for a satisfying life could be produced with a minimum of human labour, whether physical or mental. Keynes turned out to be right about increased automation. We now have machines, computers and robots that can do quickly what human beings formerly did laboriously, and the increase in automation shows no sign of slowing down. But he was wrong about the decline of work.
As old jobs have been replaced by machines, new jobs have cropped up. Some of these new jobs are direct results of the new technologies and can fairly be said to benefit society in ways beyond just keeping people employed (Autor, 2015). Information technology jobs are obvious examples, as are jobs catering to newfound realms of amusement, such as computer game design and production. But we also have an ever-growing number of jobs that seem completely useless or even harmful. As examples, we have administrators and assistant administrators in ever larger numbers shuffling papers that don’t need to be shuffled, corporate lawyers and their staffs helping big companies pay less than their fair share of taxes, countless people in the financial industries doing who knows what mischief, lobbyists using every means possible to further corrupt our politicians, and advertising executives and sales personnel pushing stuff that nobody needs or really wants.
A sad fact is that many people are now spending huge portions of their lives at work that, they know, is not benefitting society (see Graeber, 2013). It leads to such cynicism that people begin to stop even thinking that jobs are supposed to benefit society. We have the spectacle of politicians on both sides of the aisle fighting to keep munitions plants open in their states, to preserve the jobs, even when the military itself says the weapons the plant is building are no longer useful. And we have politicians and pundits arguing that fossil fuel mining and carbon spewing factories should be maintained for the sake of the jobs, let the environment be damned.
The real problem, of course, is an economic one. We’ve figured out how to reduce the amount of work required to produce everything we need and realistically want, but we haven’t figured out how to distribute those resources except through wages earned from the 40-hour (or more) workweek. In fact, technology has had the effect of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller percentage of the population, which compounds the distribution problem. Moreover, as a legacy of the industrial revolution, we have a cultural ethos that says people must work for what they get, and so we shun any serious plans for sharing wealth through means other than exchanges for work.
So, I say, down with the work ethic, up with the play ethic! We are designed to play, not to work. We are at our shining best when playing. Let’s get our economists thinking about how to create a world that maximizes play and minimizes work. It seems like a solvable problem. We’d all be better off if people doing useless or harmful jobs were playing, instead, and we all shared equally the necessary work and the benefits that accrue from it.
The word work, of course, has a number of different, overlapping meanings. As used by Keynes, and as I used it in the preceding paragraphs, it refers to activity that we do only or primarily because we feel we must do it in order to support ourselves and our families economically. Work can also refer to any activity that we experience as unpleasant, but which we feel we must do, whether or not it benefits us financially. A synonym for work by that definition is toil, and by that definition work is the opposite of play. Still another definition is that work is any activity that has some positive effect on the world, whether or not the activity is experienced as pleasant. By that definition, work and play are not necessarily distinct. Some lucky people consider their job, at which they earn their living, to be play. They would do it even if they didn’t need to in order to make a living. That’s not the meaning of work as I use it in this essay, but it’s a meaning worth keeping in mind because it reminds us that much of what we now call work, because we earn a living at it, might be called play in a world where our living was guaranteed in other ways.
It surprises many people to learn that, on the time scale of human biological history, work is a new invention. It came about with agriculture, when people had to spend long hours ploughing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; and then it expanded further with industry, when people spent countless tedious or odious hours assembling things or working in mines. But agriculture has been with us for a mere ten thousand years and industry for far less time. Before that, for hundreds of thousands of years, we were all hunter-gatherers. Researchers who have observed and lived with groups who survived as hunter-gathers into modern times, in various remote parts of the world, have regularly reported that they spent little time doing what we, in our culture, would categorize as work (Gowdy, 1999; Gray, 2009, Ingold, 1999).
In fact, quantitative studies revealed that the average adult hunter-gatherer spent about 20 hours a week at hunting and gathering, and a few hours more at other subsistence-related tasks such as making tools and preparing meals (for references, see Gray, 2009). Some of the rest of their waking time was spent resting, but most of it was spent at playful, enjoyable activities, such as making music, creating art, dancing, playing games, telling stories, chatting and joking with friends, and visiting friends and relatives in neighbouring bands. Even hunting and gathering were not regarded as work; they were done enthusiastically, not begrudgingly. Because these activities were fun and were carried out with groups of friends, there were always plenty of people who wanted to hunt and gather, and because food was shared among the whole band, anyone who didn’t feel like hunting or gathering on any given day (or week or more) was not pressured to do so.
Some anthropologists have reported that the people they studied didn’t even have a word for work; or, if they had one, it referred to what farmers, or miners, or other non-hunter-gatherers with whom they had contact did. The anthropologist Marshal Sahlins (1972) famously referred to hunter-gatherers as comprising the original affluent society—affluent not because they had so much, but because their needs were small and they could satisfy those needs with relatively little effort, so they had lots of time to play.
Ten thousand years is an almost insignificant period of time, evolutionarily. We evolved our basic human nature long before agriculture or industry came about. We are, by nature, all hunter-gatherers, meant to enjoy our subsistence activities and to have lots of free time to create our own joyful activities that go beyond subsistence. Now that we can do all our farming and manufacturing with so little work, we can regain the freedom we enjoyed through most of our evolutionary history, if we can solve the distribution problem.
Some people worry that life with little work would be a life of sloth and psychological depression. They think that human beings need work to have a sense of purpose in life or just to get out of bed in the morning. They look at how depressed people often become when they become unemployed, or at the numbers of people who just veg out when they come home after work, or at how some people, after retirement, don’t know what to do and begin to feel useless. But those observations are all occurring in a world in which unemployment signifies failure in the minds of many; in which workers come home physically or mentally exhausted each day; in which work is glorified and play is denigrated; and in which a life of work, from elementary school on to retirement, leads many to forget how to play.
Look at little children, who haven’t yet started school and therefore haven’t yet had their curiosity and playfulness suppressed for the sake of work. Are they lazy? No. They are almost continuously active when not sleeping. They are always getting into things, motivated by curiosity, and in their play they make up stories, build things, create art, and philosophize (yes, philosophize) about the world around them. There is no reason to think the drives for such activities naturally decline with age. They decline because our schools, which value work and devalue play, drill them out of people; and then tedious jobs and careers continue to drill them out. These drives don’t decline in hunter-gatherers with age, and they wouldn’t decline in us either if it weren’t for all the work imposed on us.
Schools were invented largely to teach us to obey authority figures (bosses) unquestioningly and perform tedious tasks in a timely manner. In other words, they were invented to suppress our natural tendencies to explore and play and prepare us to accept a life of work. In a world that valued play rather than work, we would have no need for such schools. Instead, we would allow each person’s playfulness, creativity, and natural strivings to find meaning in life to blossom.
Work, pretty much by definition, is something we don’t want to do. It interferes with our freedom. To the degree that we must work we are not free to choose our own activities and find our own life meanings. The view that people need work in order to be happy is closely tied to the patronizing view that people can’t handle freedom (see Danaher, 2016). That dismal view of human nature has been promoted for centuries, and reinforced in schools, in order to maintain a placid workforce.
People love to discover and create. We are naturally curious and playful, and discovery and creation are, respectively, the products of curiosity and playfulness. There is no reason to believe that less work and more time to do what we want to do would cause fewer achievements in sciences, arts, and other creative endeavors.
The specific forms our inventiveness takes depend in part on cultural conditions. Among nomadic hunter-gatherers, where material goods beyond what one could easily carry were a burden, discoveries were generally about the immediate physical and biological environment, on which they depended, and creative products where typically ephemeral in nature—songs, dances, jokes, stories, bodily decorations, and the like. Today, and ever since agriculture, creative products can take all these forms plus material inventions that transform our basic ways of living.
Nearly all great scientists, inventors, artists, poets, and writers talk about their achievements as play. Einstein, for example, spoke of his achievements in mathematics and theoretical physics as "combinatorial play." He did it for fun, not money, while he supported himself as a clerk in a patent office. The Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, in his classic book Homo Ludens, argued, convincingly, that most of the cultural achievements that have enriched human lives—in art, music, literature, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, and even jurisprudence—are derivatives of the drive to play. He pointed out that the greatest outpourings of such achievements have occurred at those times and places where a significant number of adults were freed from work and could therefore play, in an environment in which play was valued. A prime example was ancient Athens.
The 18th century poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller wrote, "Man is only fully human when he plays." I agree; and it seems as clear to me as it did to Schiller that part of our humanity, which rises in play, is concern for our fellow human beings.
In our work-filled world we too often fall into a pit where the duty of the job overrides our concern for others. Work detracts from the time and energy—and sometimes even from the motivation—for helping neighbors in need, or striving to clean up our environment, or promoting causes aimed at improving the word for all. The fact that so many people engage in such humanitarian activities already, despite the pressures of work, is evidence that people want to help others and make the world a better place. Most of us would do more for our fellow humans if it weren’t for the sink of time and energy and the tendencies toward greed and submission to power that work creates.
Band hunter-gatherers, who, as I said, lived a life of play, are famous among anthropologists for their eagerness to share and help one another. Another term for such societies is egalitarian societies—they are the only societies without social hierarchies that have ever been found. Their ethos, founded in play, is one that prohibits any one person from having more status or goods than any other. In a world without work, or without so much of it, we would all be less concerned with moving up some ladder, ultimately to nowhere, and more concerned with the happiness of others, who are, after all, our playmates.
Originally published at Peter Gray’s Freedom to Learn blog on Psychology Today.
Rob and Mary