If Hadza nomads get by on 14 hours’ work a week, why can’t we?

You should cherish your hours of idleness even more keenly than usual this summer. For the work fetishists are on the warpath 


In a birthday poem for Christopher Isherwood written in 1935, W H Auden welcomed “August for the people and their favourite islands”. At that time, happy insular holidays mostly meant Wight, Hayling or Man rather than Langkawi, Saint Lucia or even Ibiza. The destinations (if you’re lucky enough) may have changed, but the sentiment lives on. Auden celebrates “the effusive welcome of the pier” as the “sallow oval faces of the city” briefly “live their dreams of freedom” beside “the undiscriminating sea”.

When Auden wrote, the mass vacation business was already in full swing, but not until 1938 did holidays with pay become a legal right. Thank you, for that if little else, PM Neville Chamberlain, in best One Nation Tory mode. In 1936, France’s new Popular Front government had given workers two weeks’ paid entitlement; Britain began with a niggardly one. If you ever want to cheer yourself up with proof of the reality of social progress, I suggest a glance at the relevant government website: “Almost all workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday per year.” Of course, if in 2017 (should we have the chance) you vote to quit the EU, then the Working Time Regulations may well go up with the rest of the Brussels bonfire. Turkeys, Christmas, anyone?

For 150 years, reformers and idealists have dreamed of leisure and relaxation ample enough to allow human beings to thrive. In 1890, William Morris subtitled his utopian fantasia News from Nowhere “an epoch of rest”. Proper holidays, legally mandated after the bitter struggle to guarantee them, are not only one of the summits of civilisation. They offer a utopian foretaste of a more rational state of affairs. If the richest man in the world can recommend working less but better, who dares disagree? Mexican mining and telecoms magnate Carlos Slim, who this month overtook Bill Gates in estimated total assets ($79.6 bn to Gates’s $79.1 bn), thinks that in the future we should be working three days each week.

If, since the Book of Genesis, the sweat-of-thy-brow brigade has championed labour as a moral duty, a more refractory part of humankind has always yearned to lay down its tools. “Why should I let the toad work/ Squat on my life?” asked Philip Larkin in his poem “Toads”. Larkin the artist enquired, but Larkin the ultra-professional university librarian briskly answered: “Don’t be silly”. A follow-up poem, “Toads Revisited”, recoils in horror at the forlorn human casualties in the afternoon parks of Hull, and embraces the warty devil we know: “Give me your arm, old toad;/ Help me down Cemetery Road.”

Noël Coward, though more hedonist than puritan, agreed: “Work is much more fun than fun.” If, like “The Master”, you sat in your dressing gown on the Firefly Estate in Jamaica, penning boulevard comedies and witty cabaret songs as the sun slid into the Caribbean, that truth might be self-evident. The rest of us may have our doubts. I did try to find out who first popularised the oft-repeated idea that “No man ever said on his deathbed, I wish I had spent more time at the office”. So far, I can trace it back to Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who in a 1984 memoir attributed the notion to a friend called Arnold Zack. Suspicious? Well, you do the digging and then tell us.

You should cherish your hours of idleness even more keenly than usual this summer. For the work fetishists are on the warpath. The present Government has failed to make work pay for everyone, despite the intentions of its universal credit (UC) reforms to safeguard the income of people who move off benefits. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that UC “in many cases provides little or no incentive for additional work”, while the Government’s own impact assessment calculates 2.8 million losers (and 3.1 million winners) under the new system. So the practical attractions of honest toil for families on low incomes remain, at best, balanced on a fiscal knife edge. What to do? Promote politicians whose USP is insulting their fellow citizens as work-shy shirkers. Quite brilliant.

In 2012, the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs published their hardcore treatise Britannia Unchained, with its notorious jibes at Britons as gold-medal slackers, “among the worst idlers in the world” when they enter the workplace. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.” Quite false on the first two counts: OECD figures have annual working hours in the UK as 1,625, compared with 1,482 in France and 1,406 in super-efficient Germany. Our benchmark age for retirement is due to rise inexorably. Already, the UK rate for employment among the over-65s exceeds that in the rest of Europe; only Denmark comes close.

The Free Enterprisers’ final slur on their people is technically correct but economically illiterate. A substantial literature already surrounds the UK “productivity puzzle”, whereby post-recession output and employment have risen while national productivity markedly drops: $42.1 contribution to GDP per hour worked in 2013, compared with a eurozone average of $43.7 and a G7 rate of $48.4. Explanations for the plunge range from the misallocation of resources and the post-crash investment famine to, in several studies, the long-term fall in real wages. Professor John Van Reenen of the London School of Economics argues in a paper that “low wages and weak investment mean a big fall in the amount of effective capital per worker and this accounts for most of the fall in labour productivity”.

No serious economist thinks it has anything to do with skivers chatting by the coffee machine or sloping off early to the pub. So what became of the excitable duffers responsible for Britannia Unchained? One of the gang, Elizabeth Truss, has joined the Cabinet as Environment Secretary. Another, Priti Patel, will now help to steer taxation policy as Exchequer Secretary at the Treasury.

We work hard, but we don’t work smart. The solution is to re-equip and upgrade industries, rather than chain underpaid toilers for longer to the Victorian lathe (or its computerised equivalent). But improved technology alone will not wean us away from work addiction. The curse of electronic “presenteeism”, with employees remotely on call 24/7 and 365 days per year, breeds sloppiness, delay and indecision. One seldom hears a good word for market speculators now, but the old stockbrokers’ adage that ran “Sell in May and go away” at least exhibited a healthy perspective on the work-life balance.

Above all, we need a change of culture. More than 80 years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote a wonderful essay entitled “In Praise of Idleness”. I wanted to call it “invigorating”, but “soothing” might be an apter word. This manifesto for malingerers tells of Russell’s recovery from the Victorian creed that “Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do”. Now, “my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous”. Russell attacks not work in itself but the idolatrous and inhuman religion of labour. Even with 1930s technology, he reckons that four hours each day should be enough to secure a civilised life for all. Since then, advanced robotics have brought his fantasy much closer to reality. For Russell, the four-hour day will usher in an age of “happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid”.

Lord Russell published about 70 books over 70 years, from German Social Democracy in 1896 to War Crimes in Vietnam in 1967. Plainly, he found it a little hard to practise what he preached. No matter. In the great thinker’s final decade, his advocacy of the four-hour day or (roughly) 20-hour week began to attract endorsement from some unexpected sources. When anthropologists in the 1960s started to look seriously at the world’s surviving hunter-gatherer societies, they showed that in New Guinea, the Kalahari or the Amazon entirely self-sufficient tribes flourished with almost exactly that workload.

Jared Diamond, the scientist who has done more than anyone to draw lessons from “the world until yesterday”, argued that “Hunter-gatherers practised the most successful and longest-lasting lifestyle in human history”. On a 24-hour clock, our species took to labour-intensive agriculture only at 11.54pm. Moreover, several viable communities undercut the 20-hour norm, with the Hadza nomads of Tanzania getting by on 14 hours of foraging every week. Richard Lee’s research among the Dobe people of the Kalahari found that their far from taxing routines yielded a daily calorie intake of 2,140, compared with an estimated requirement of 1,975. Not just slackers, but overeaters too.

So, from leisure-loving survivors in forest or desert to Nobel Prize-winning philosophers, reasonable idleness has an illustrious pedigree. Remember that glorious heritage of justified indolence the next time some punitive ideologue tries to confuse repose with laziness, or drudgery with purpose. Enjoy your “favourite island” this August, or even just your favourite armchair. By occupying them, you may help to bring an “epoch of rest” that bit nearer.

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