Hey, Labor Day’s for neanderthals too

BILLs TO PAY: Neaderthals didn't have mortgages to pay, but they still had plenty to worry about.

BILLS TO PAY: Sure, Neanderthals didn’t have mortgages to pay, but they still had plenty to worry about.

Time for a quick reflection, via a new book, on the American holiday that celebrates work, Labor Day:

Not much has changed about the nature of work since the guy pictured above was roaming the earth, and that fact should prompt you to think more deeply about the career that you give your life to. This came to me in the course of reading Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner’s inspiring new book, “The Rise of the Naked Economy: How to Benefit from the Changing Workplace” (Palgrave/Macmillan).

Why inspiring? Because, my friends, as you’re looking ahead to a busy fall, the authors of this book offer a fresh perspective on who we are and what we do in the context of the much bigger frame of human history:

From the moment the first hominids scampered across the African savannas, the human species has been consumed by the work of staying alive. Our oldest ancestors are often referred to as hunter-gatherers, because that was their work…. Some studies show that hunter-gatherers worked only three hours a day, then basically hung out for the rest of the day. Once again proving that evolution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The single most salient difference between early humans and contemporary humans is not why but how — and, more strikingly, how quickly — the nature of work has changed.

Their book is concerned with this fact — that the nature of work has changed and accelerated (what’s one of the culprits behind this acceleration? yes, it’s technology). Even though some people measure this acceleration as being beneficial — the “naked” in the title refers to how technology enables more people to avoid being stuck in an office five days a week — the authors also make another unsettling point. Things move so fast, their book suggests, that we become paralyzed by our work. We have little time to evaluate what we do because we’re trapped in the constant, hyper-pressures of meeting deadlines:

Early humans were engaged in the basic subsistence of hunting and gathering for two million years; during that period cultural evolution took hundreds of generations and technological advances took a millennium. Today we witness fundamental, even radical, social and economic change within a decade. This rate of change has made us more adaptable than the generations before us. But when it comes to work, an activity as central to human life as eating, sleeping, and procreating — though not nearly as enjoyable — we don’t have the opportunity to analyze and control what is happening to our lives. We are happy if we just keep our dental plan.

It’s far too easy to lose ourselves in the rush of business, and the authors’ book makes a fresh plea for each of us to do what we can to find the deeper, more meaningful sense of purpose in our work — even if it’s a tedious grind of paperwork and rubber stamps.

Easier said than done, I know, but still it’s some welcome food for thought. Wasn’t it William Wordsworth who said, back in the early 1800s, that “the world is too much with us”? Man, I wonder what he’d think today.

Have a good one, my friends.

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2 responses

  1. Nice review, Nick! My husband’s company focuses on helping socially responsible nonprofits measure and evaluate the success of their programs so they know if they’re really “doing good.” They do this first through business process analysis and then use new technology to streamline and evaluate the processes. These days, funders want to know exactly “what they’re getting” for their bucks, and this work helps them evaluate themselves and their grantees.

    We’ve been having discussions in our house and with our friends about whether “work” in its current form is becoming obsolete. With technology replacing so many workers, are there too few “real” jobs to keep everyone gainfully employed? Is it really necessary for everyone to work? And what should that work look like? Are we approaching a new paradigm where the nature of “work” will change significantly once again?

    Does this book go into these types of questions?

  2. Thanks Jil! This book definitely sounds a bright note about the future — about how technology and mobility are creating new kinds of entrepreneurs even if other forms of work are falling by the wayside.

    Your husband’s business sounds like it provides the ideal service: I constantly hear questions about “what are the metrics? How do we know?” I heard it at the newspaper, I hear it now at the college where I work. I wish him all the best on that — it’s invaluable and, in this landscape, I can only imagine that the need for it is going to keep growing.

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