Drop down a little rabbit hole with me. There’s a philosophical question that keeps bubbling up in my mind. Essentially, many people work in jobs they don’t care for, with increasing demands and responsibilities, all for the goal of retiring and entertaining a life of leisure. This comes at a time with tragic income inequality and painfully low social mobility.
I’m puzzled by this pattern that we are corralled into: Birth, education, working years, retirement, and then death. Why do we work as hard as we do to become financially solvent when time is an illusion and our days here are undefined? Moreover, why are we pursuing these stressful work lives that cause serious medical complications and early death (e.g., stress, heart disease, cancer, etc.)? Is there a balanced alternative?
This New Year’s Eve, I visited Chicago to celebrate with someone I care deeply about. As we walked around the city, I suggested we traipse over to the Field Museum of Natural History. That’s when some of these questions came into perspective and I found some surprising answers.
The hunter gatherer versus 21st century desk-sitter workweeks
As we strolled through the museum, I began to see how work and life changed for people. Where once we foraged and hunted, travelled in groups and visited a variety of places, we now hunker down and settle. Questions of food scarcity, shelter, and life expectancy abound when you’re a hunter gatherer. But you’d be wrong to assume that hunter gatherers were working all the time to survive.
Anthropologists have long known that the life of a hunter gatherer included far more leisure time than our traditional, 21st century desk-sitter. In fact, the average working day was less than 5 hours. Here in the United States and much of the working world, there’s a 40 to 44 hour workweek, and far less leisure time.
Popular productivity tips and organizational oracles flood major content websites. There are entire swaths of the Internet dedicated to tackling your work, life, and beyond. Admittedly, I frequent websites such as Lifehacker and the Reddit “lifehack” subreddit. I read The 4-Hour Workweek with great vigor, and promptly failed at utilizing most of the productivity skills it contained.
When I return to books and sites like these, I feel like I’ve admitted defeat and accepted that my lifestyle and workweek just go with the territory (a full-time grad student and employee with a monetary budget equal to a few packets of ramen). Each of these self-proclaimed productivity solutions seem to be getting at the same thing: less work and more play.
The 21st century desk-sitters’ kryptonite: Heart disease and early death
Despite evolving into bipeds – made for walking, running, and moving – we are more sedentary than ever before. At the museum, the curators boldly outlined a significant problem with our current lifestyle: heart and health-related early death.
The shift to 21st century desk-sitters and the productivity movement caused a sudden increase in heart and health-related diseases. Increased duration and pressure in the work environment is associated with depression, obesity, cancer, sleep deficits, cardiovascular complications, stress, and eye strain. Here’s what we know about working beyond 7 hours (aka, overtime):
The research shows a 60% increase in heart-related illness such as non-fatal heart attacks and angina in those who work for three hours or more longer than a normal seven-hour day.
“Employers and patients need to be aware of all of the risk factors for coronary heart disease – and should consider overtime as one factor that may lead to a number of medical conditions.” (The Guardian)
Despite these risks and loss of enjoyment, we continue to pursue these workweeks that perpetuate and encourage the trouble. The solution and ontology are simple: move and find time to relax more.
The hunter gatherers were really good at one thing: Minimalism
While we fight mightily to carve out more time for leisure via productivity, we’re failing and the paradigm needs to shift. There are systemic, governmental factors that limit our ability to engage in more leisure time. But more interestingly, there seems to be a cultural appreciation for those that work two or three jobs, and fight to make a living. This may hold us back more than any federal legalese.
Hunter gatherer societies seemed to understand that life was held in a delicate balance. Time versus effort was carefully calculated. Needs were different, as many just needed to feed, cloth, and find shelter. These people weren’t squabbling over cloud-piercing skyscrapers, or debating between iPad and Google Nexus tablets. They carried and traveled with little more than their necessities, and the urge to consume was much less. They were minimalists to the fullest extent – out of pure necessity.
Fortunately, some countries are wisening up to these consequences and reducing the normal workweek schedule. Germany, the Netherlands, and France top the list of countries with the fewest average work hours. Germans work an average 25.6 hours per week, make $35.33 an hour, and only have a 6% unemployment rate.
My night at the museum opened my eyes to this simple change in our workweek, lifestyles, and health complications. There’s an alternative to the work, work, die lifestyle and it starts with your schedule.
Would you be able to reduce your work hours? What consequences would you see, positively or negatively?