Once Upon a Time There Was No Such Thing as “Work”

February 24, 2017 at 2:30 am

“Work” was play for hunter-gatherers because it was varied, flexible, optional and there wasn’t too much of it. The minimal tasks required for their survival were skillful, fun and done in a social context.


In “civilized” societies, our worth as individuals is measured by how hard we work. From a young age, we learn our value is determined by our productivity.

As a culture, we have become so obsessed with the concept of “work,” our entire identity is wrapped up in what we do to make a “living.”

The good news is it hasn’t always been this way, which gives us hope that it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Hunter-gatherers — both those who existed prior to agriculture and the few who’ve survived it — had/have no concept of work. Their “work” — the things they did that were necessary for survival — was so light they didn’t think of it as work.

Hunter-gatherers have no word for “work”

While anthropologists argue over whether the average workweek of the hunter-gatherer is 20 or 40 hours, evolutionary psychologist David Gray argues it was zero.

That’s because hunter-gatherers make no distinction between work and leisure, Gray says in his Psychology Today article Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work is Play.

Much of the debate revolves around how we define work. Some anthropologists count only the time spent gathering and hunting food, which is between two and four hours a day. Others include cooking, making tools and building shelter.

Even if you include every possible activity that could be considered work, the highest estimates are no more than 40 hours a week. By the same standards, we could say members of modern civilization easily work 80 — at least 40 hours on the job, followed by another 40 hours of non-paid work such as commuting, shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, making repairs, paying bills, etc.

But how many hours gatherer-hunters “worked” becomes irrelevant when you understand why primitive peoples think of their “work” as play.

Why work is play for gatherer-hunters

Is picking berries work or play? For migrant farm workers, who toil in the heat for 12-14 hours a day, it’s work. But for a little girl picking a basket full of berries in her grandma’s backyard — or on the African savannah — for an hour, it’s play.

The same could be said about fishing. For commercial fishermen, it’s backbreaking work. For others, it’s a leisure activity.

So when does play become work? Gray lists four primary reasons that the answer is “never” for gatherer-hunters:

1. Their “work” is skill intensive, rather than labor intensive

Hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil. They may learn a word for toil to refer to the work of their neighboring farmers, miners, or road construction workers, but they do not apply it to their own work. Their own work is simply an extension of children’s play. Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, tool making, meal preparations, defense against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on; and gradually, as their play become increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. The play becomes work, but it does not cease being play.

2. There isn’t too much of it

They do not work according to the clock [they don’t have clocks or keep track of time] … There is ample time for leisure activities, including games, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying around and relaxing. The life of the typical hunter-gatherer looks a lot like your life and mine when we are on vacation at a camp with friends.

3. It’s done in a social context with friends and family

Most of their work is done cooperatively, and even that which is done individually is done in social settings, with others around. And–because hunter-gatherers are highly mobile people, who move to another band if they don’t like the people they are currently living with–their bands are truly friendship groups. In general, anything that we humans do with friends has more of a spirit of play than things we do alone or with collaborators who aren’t really friends.

4. It’s flexible and optional

Clearly, in an ultimate sense, hunter-gatherers’ work is not optional … However, for any given person, on any given day, these [activities] for the most part are optional … Hunter-gatherers everywhere maintain an extraordinary ethic of personal autonomy … They deliberately avoid telling each other how to behave … Each person is his or her own boss.

On any given day, a band member may join a foraging group, visit friends in another camp, or just stay in camp and relax… Such freedom does open up the possibility of free-riding … but such long-term shirking apparently happens rarely if at all. It is exciting to go out hunting or gathering with the others, and it would be boring to stay in camp day after day.

Because they don’t have to “work” for their bounty, they are happy to share it

Even the most industrious hunters and gatherers receive no more food than anyone else, Gray says.

“To us it seems almost sinful that someone who works less should receive as much,” he writes. “But that’s because we think of work as toil. If produce requires toil, those who toil the most should get the most. If someone is lazy and doesn’t toil, they should not get the rewards. That’s our concept of justice, and it’s a reasonable one. But what if we thought of work as play, something that we want to do just because it’s fun. With that attitude, why should those who get the most intrinsic rewards from play–because they enjoy it so much, and are so skilled at it, and therefore participate in it the most–also reap the most extrinsic rewards from it?”

Gray says as long as people are free and treated well, the great majority will gladly voluntarily contribute to the well-being of the whole tribe.

“I’m not suggesting that we can import the hunter-gather approach whole-cloth into our current culture,” Gray concludes. “But there are areas where this way of thinking would make life more fun for all of us.”