Modern American’s Are Working Longer With Less Vacation Than Medieval Peasants

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It might sound unbelievable but modern Americans are putting in longer working hours than medieval peasants.

With today’s economy, many people are feeling the increasing pressure to work longer hours to keep up with financial demands. Those working extended hours with multiple jobs might find comfort in knowing that at least they aren’t working as hard a medieval peasants did – but they would be wrong.

In her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure  Juliet Schor, a Professor of Sociology at Boston College, explained that in 1987 the average American was working 1,949 hours a year.  An adult male peasant in 13th-century England would work for up to approximately 1,620 hours yearly.

According to recent labor data, in 2017 Americans were working 1,780 hours a year each year, still more than the medieval peasants.

It seems that some economists of the last century got their predictions wrong regarding the the direction work was heading in. According to Business Insider:

“John Maynard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, made a famous prediction that by 2030, advanced societies would be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, would characterize national lifestyles. So far, that forecast is not looking good.”

The United States is the only country in the western world with no national vacation policy. “Many American workers must keep on working through public holidays, and vacation days often go unused,” said Business Insider. “Even when we finally carve out a holiday, many of us answer emails and ‘check in’ whether we’re camping with the kids or trying to kick back on the beach.”

So, why were things better in medieval times?

Schor wrote in her book:

“Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. Consider a typical working day in the medieval period. It stretched from dawn to dusk (sixteen hours in summer and eight in winter), but, as the Bishop Pilkington has noted, work was intermittent – called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner.”

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks

During their work days there were many refreshment periods and breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they could enjoy even during peak harvest times. Most of the year was more slack, and at these times it wasn’t common for workers to have to adhere to regular working hours.

According to Oxford Professor James E. Thorold Rogers, the medieval working day was no more than eight hours.

Plowing and harvesting was most certainly backbreaking work, but the peasants did enjoy anywhere from 2 months to half the year off. While the modern American, after a year on a typical job, only gets an average of eight days vacation each year, much less than medieval peasants.

Some people who are worried about layoffs or becoming dispensable may not even take the vacations days they are entitled to in their jobs, according to Business Insider:

“In a period of consistently high unemployment, job insecurity and weak labor unions, employees may feel no choice but to accept the conditions set by the culture and the individual employer”.