Lessons from the Deep History of Work

What hunter-gatherers can teach us about the frustrations of modern work.

Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question. If an activity as entrenched as coming to an office every day could be overturned essentially overnight, what other aspects of our professional lives could be reimagined?

This reasoning better explains the energy that propels groups such as AppleTogether to resist a return to pre-pandemic worklife. The battle for telecommuting is a proxy for a deeper unrest. If employees lose remote work, the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment, the window for future transformation might slam shut. The tragedy of this moment, however, is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand. Shifting more work to teleconferencing eliminates commutes and provides schedule flexibility, but, as so many office refugees learned, remote work alone doesn’t really help alleviate most of what made their jobs frantic and exhausting. We need new ideas about how to reshape work, and anthropology may have something to offer.

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