Clearly, we are victims of our ingenuity: we clear rainforests and generate greenhouse gases in the name of cheap food. Each year, 66 billion chickens are reared — triple the number of all wild birds. Greed is the key to modern problems, what Suzman calls ‘the malady of infinite aspiration’ — more microwave ovens, cars, phones. Nor is there a proportional correspondence between human labour and reward. What really counts, if you want a good job, are family connections, inheritance and ‘getting lucky’.
The advent of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago condemned humans to short, disease-ridden lives of backbreaking work in the fields. And because agriculture can sustain vastly larger populations than hunting and gathering can, there was no going back. Work was here to stay. It’s a familiar argument, and for the book to have taken flight Suzman needed to find new, audacious ideas about work in the centuries that followed. But he writes with less conviction and less detail about promising subjects such as the rise of cities, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern management techniques.