What Work Is

Andreea Moldovan

10 minutes read

Answers for What work is. James Suzman’s book, “Work A History of How We Spend Our Time (2020)”

James Suzman’s book, “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time (2020)”, could be enthralling for those who are passionate about anthropology. For the others, who are not so keen on this particular field, it could be very useful. 

As an amateur reader in this area, I have found a good genealogy of what work is now considered. Let’s look at some key points which have contributed to our formation as a modern society in the broadest sense.

Starting over 1.5 million years ago, Homo erectus, the archaic species of humans, left traces of bones and ash through Asia, Africa or the island of Java. 

Raw meat for what later became Homo sapiens was not enough anymore to maintain and develop a large and hungry brain. To support an optimal level of energy, they needed to cook their meat. In doing so, they developed their brains, built tools and found new fast ways to feed themselves, releasing energy that was no longer consumed only for physiological needs, having at the same time what can hardly have today: leisure boredom

This seemed to imply an adaptive mechanism that precipitated creativity, curiosity and experimentation. Once the fire was discovered and the tools were built, Homo sapiens had more time to invest in something else – in telling stories, having fun, amusement and seduction. 

In this context, seduction became an adaptive mechanism that overturned the relationship between physical power and intellectual ability

“But when the food quest became less time-consuming, less physically robust males who nurtured their skills as linguists may well have found themselves becoming increasingly successful in the competition for sexual partners, so ensuring that their genes made it through to the next generation.” 

This tells us something about the intelligence upgrade through the dispersion of a new type of knowledge – intellectual work transforms the pace and value of daily activities

The book “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time” also exposes a relationship between the archaic societies of nomadic hunters (or “foragers”, like Ju/’hoansi society from the Kalahari Desert, in Africa, who lived like that until the latter part of the 20th century) and those of sedentary farmers. 

We can imagine how different the relationship with work between nomadic hunters and sedentary farmers is. Hunting societies have a nomadic dynamic depending on animals’ behaviour, while the agrarian ones need a high-performance production mechanism. 

Through the harvest and the cropping techniques, the human being became an administrator. If they work hard, they have good food production. Thus, we can say, following Suzman and a whole suite of anthropologists, that agriculture changed the face of what we call today’s work and how these archaic societies have built an identity that influenced us as a modern society. 

Here, the idea of ​​progress is already intrinsic to commodity production and trade. Agrarian populations developed a technology of work; they became more productive through organization and economic efficiency. 

Suzman highlights several important issues in the working conditions over the two centuries, when large companies began to grow and professionals took the lead: the massive development of capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came with the lack of legal and ethical procedures in mills, mines, foundries and other factories, with extra hours of labour (six-day work and over seventy working hours per week), employment of children under age fourteen, poor working conditions in all British factories, unregulated healthcare procedures, a total ban of trade unions, arbitrary wage rate etc.

There are some aspects of the book that disappointed me because I expected to find more ideas about the new social dynamic of work in the digital age (probably not in the COVID-19 era, because the book was released in 2020, so it couldn’t be updated with some relevant information). 

I did not learn much about the plurality, transparency, aggression and the so-called work connectivity brought by the virtual community through which the subject fails and succeeds in co-dependency with another; about the petty jobs nowadays and the frustrating mix between job survival and the continuing search for creativity, about the uncertainties of the future, which are all just some of the new digital normalities. 

A completely new phenomenology of “the hot desk (an alternative to the conventional office layout) takes control over “the fixed desk”, over the groups and individuals who have once shared the same physical space every day. Not anymore, or, at least, not to the same extent. 

Networks subtly educate a form of detached sensitivity, and new sensibilities are not only insinuated in the face-to-face physical interaction of individuals, but through virtual environments that often leave us with the defeat that we are always beyond or outside of what is essential: the speed of the technological medium which left us obsolete, the perfidious metamorphosis of self-image that cannot help us to manage the pressures of ubiquitous digital capitalism in the Western world. 

However, James Suzman’s book is worth reading for the genealogy of the emancipation of human civilization through work, but also through precipitation, multitasking, burnout and actual psycho-cybernetic orgies.

So, “what work is”, asks Philip Levin, the American poet and voice of working-class Detroit, in a bitter, yet stunning poetry, with a hunch of a very tired proletarian from this urban decaying city. 

More actual than ever, this question should be kept in mind, yet difficult to answer.

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Written by Andreea Moldovan


Andreea has a Bachelor’s degree in Philology, she has published articles and reviews, and she writes about books that interest her.

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