Work, Suzman observes, is what distinguishes animate organisms, humans above all, from inert matter: “Only living things actively seek out and capture energy specifically to live, to grow and to reproduce.” Yet it is the million-year history of labor’s counterpoint, leisure, that holds the key to humanity’s exceptionalism—its record of remarkable progress, and the discontent that seems to have accompanied those strides.
From what we can tell, our Australopithecus ancestors of roughly 2.5 million years ago closely resembled modern primates, such as chimpanzees, who spend about eight hours a day foraging and eating. In between chewing and digesting all that raw pith, stalk, and root, gorillas and chimps sleep nine to 12 hours. Such a routine doesn’t leave much daylight time for leisure activities more energy-intensive than lazy grooming.
Fire changed everything. Anthropologists don’t know precisely how humans first marshaled fire for their use roughly 1 million years ago, but it’s obvious how fire formed humans. By softening meat and vegetables, fire predigests our food, allowing us to eat and retain more calories in less time. By warding off predators, fire allowed our ancestors to climb down from their tree beds and sleep soundly on the ground; more REM sleep sharpened their memory and their focus. Fire also allowed humans to grow huge, energy-greedy brains that gobble up about a fifth of our calories, a far greater proportion than other primates’ brains consume.
By expanding our minds and our free time, fire sparked humankind’s capacity for boredom, amusement, craftsmanship, and art. And from what we can discern, our Homo sapiens ancestors celebrated the gift of free time with gusto.
The Ju/’hoansi spent an average of 17 hours a week finding food—2,140 calories daily—and devoted another 20 to chores, as Suzman gleaned from other ethnographies and firsthand research. This left them with considerably more downtime than the typical full-time employee in the U.S., who spends about 44 hours a week doing work—and that doesn’t include domestic labor and child care. In that downtime, the Ju/’hoansi remained strikingly free, over centuries, from the urge to cram it with activities that we would classify as “productive” (or, for that matter, destructive). By day, they did go on walks with children to teach them how to read the canvas of the desert for the footprints of animals. But they also lounged, gossiped, and flirted. During firelit evenings, they sang, danced, and told stories. One anthropologist studying another hunter-gatherer tribe, the Hadza people of northern Tanzania, described its members in the 1960s as habitual small-stakes gamblers whose days were filled with one particular pastime: winning and losing arrows in games of chance.
So how did we move from that world to a culture in which leisure exists for the sake of work—in which downtime activities (such as using social media) are strewed with performance metrics, and childhood play (such as team sports) has become a résumé enhancer? Suzman does not answer this question in a very organized way. But his discussion highlights at a macro level what the Sunday scaries signal on a personal level: Modern life has made it harder for Americans to forget about their work.