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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

The 15-Hour Work Week Was Standard For Nearly All of History. What Happened?

00:00 38:04
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There’s nothing in human DNA that makes the 40-hour workweek a biological necessity. In fact, for much of human history, 15 hours of work a week was the standard, followed by leisure time with family and fellow tribe members, telling stories, painting, dancing, and everything else. Work was a means to an end, and nothing else.
So what happened? Why does work today define who we are? It determines our status, and dictates how, where, and with whom we spend most of our time. It mediates our self-worth and molds our values. But are we hard-wired to work as hard as we do? Did our Stone Age ancestors also live to work and work to live? And what might a world where work plays a far less important role look like?

To answer these questions, today’s guest James Suzman, author of Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots charts a grand history of "work" from the origins of life on Earth to our ever more automated present, challenging some of our deepest assumptions about who we are. Drawing insights from anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, zoology, physics, and economics, he shows that while we have evolved to find joy meaning and purpose in work, for most of human history our ancestors worked far less and thought very differently about work than we do now. He demonstrates how our contemporary culture of work has its roots in the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. Our sense of what it is to be human was transformed by the transition from foraging to food production, and, later, our migration to cities. Since then, our relationships with one another and with our environments, and even our sense of the passage of time, have not been the same.

Arguing that we are in the midst of a similarly transformative point in history, Suzman argues that automation might revolutionize our relationship with work and in doing so usher in a more sustainable and equitable future for our world.
April 08, 2021
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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