There may literally be no worse sound in the world than that of an alarm clock cutting through your dreams to tell you its time to get up for work. But no matter what your job, it’d be safe to assume that you should be grateful you don’t have it quite as bad as, say….a medieval peasant, right? Don’t be so sure. Okay, so life today has definitely improved when it comes to things like famine, plague, and personal hygiene. But it turns out that working hours for peasants back in the medieval days may not have been quite as grueling as you think.
All work, no play
A professor named Juliet Schor released a book in 1992 called The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, which revealed a staggering fact about the American workweek. As it turns out, the average American today puts in more hours of work than the average peasant of lore. Seriously? Unfortunately, yep. According to the OECD data bank, the average worker in the USA annually put in 1,786 of work in 2018. Medieval peasants, on the other hand, put in a measly 1,620 hours a year back in the 15th century.
While most of our modern ideas about old school peasants tend to feature hours of year-round backbreaking toil, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Keep in mind that many peasants were farmers. So after the harvest came in, they might enjoy somewhere in the arena of eight weeks off. Not to mention that there were frequent holidays for things like weddings, births, and sporting events. Schor even discovered that during a particularly good harvest year, peasants could get away with working as little as 150 days a year. As for Americans? We might be lucky to get 8 vacation days each year, as the U.S. “continues to be the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.”
The leisurely days of yore
If most of our ancestors had had the chance to feast their eyes on the modern technology we enjoy today, they probably would have assumed that we’d be one of the most leisurely generations in history. Though a lovely thought, that has definitely not proven to be the case. Shor found that while the medieval peasant may have been…well, a peasant, his average workday wasn’t even that bad.
“The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” says Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”
Though technology proposes to be making our lives easier, could it be that this is a wishful illusion? These days, many Americans are constantly checking in with work via email or other mobile channels, even after the workday is done. As far as holidays go? While some people may get them, it’s rare to find a single day in the USA when there aren’t at least a few businesses still open.
So why do we toil away? Well, simply put, many Americans feel like they’re forced too in order to make ends meet. With student loan debt on the rise, the increasing cost of rent and living, not to mention inflating gas prices, most millennials report that working one job just isn’t going to cut it.
While the American dream used to include a 40-hour workweek, it seems that the tide has changed and taken the eight-hour workweek along with it. Though the economy may be doing well, it’s also gotten a lot more competitive, leaving a great many people just grateful to have a job at all. That said, maybe it’s time to start badgering our representatives to restore paid time off every time a wandering juggler comes to town?