Prosperity

Before Capitalism, Medieval Peasants Got More Vacation Time Than You. Here’s Why.

Go back 200, 300 or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours

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By Lynn Parramore

Life for the medieval peasant was certainly no picnic. His life was shadowed by fear of famine, disease and bursts of warfare. His diet and personal hygiene left much to be desired. But despite his reputation as a miserable wretch, you might envy him one thing: his vacations.

Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

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As for the modern American worker? After a year on the job, she gets an average of eight vacation days annually.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way: 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.

What happened? Some cite the victory of the modern eight-hour a day, 40-hour workweek over the punishing 70 or 80 hours a 19th century worker spent toiling as proof that we’re moving in the right direction. But Americans have long since kissed the 40-hour workweek goodbye, and Shor’s examination of work patterns reveals that the 19th century was an aberration in the history of human labor. When workers fought for the eight-hour workday, they weren’t trying to get something radical and new, but rather to restore what their ancestors had enjoyed before industrial capitalists and the electric lightbulb came on the scene. Go back 200, 300 or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours at all. In addition to relaxing during long holidays, the medieval peasant took his sweet time eating meals, and the day often included time for an afternoon snooze. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” notes Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the U.S. is the only advanced country with no national vacation policy whatsoever. Many American workers must keep on working through public holidays, and vacation days often go unused. 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.

Some blame the American worker for not taking what is her due. But 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. In a world of “at will” employment, where the work contract can be terminated at any time, it’s not easy to raise objections.

It’s true that the New Deal brought back some of the conditions that farm workers and artisans from the Middle Ages took for granted, but since the 1980s things have gone steadily downhill. With secure long-term employment slipping away, people jump from job to job, so seniority no longer offers the benefits of additional days off. The rising trend of hourly and part-time work, stoked by the Great Recession, means that for many, the idea of a guaranteed vacation is a dim memory.

Ironically, this cult of endless toil doesn’t really help the bottom line. Study after study shows that overworking reduces productivity. On the other hand, performance increases after a vacation, and workers come back with restored energy and focus. The longer the vacation, the more relaxed and energized people feel upon returning to the office.

Economic crises give austerity-minded politicians excuses to talk of decreasing time off, increasing the retirement age and cutting into social insurance programs and safety nets that were supposed to allow us a fate better than working until we drop. In Europe, where workers average 25 to 30 days off per year, politicians like French President Francois Hollande and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras are sending signals that the culture of longer vacations is coming to an end. But the belief that shorter vacations bring economic gains doesn’t appear to add up. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the Greeks, who face a horrible economy, work more hours than any other Europeans. In Germany, an economic powerhouse, workers rank second to last in number of hours worked. Despite more time off, German workers are the eighth most productive in Europe, while the long-toiling Greeks rank 24 out of 25 in productivity.

Beyond burnout, vanishing vacations make our relationships with families and friends suffer. Our health is deteriorating: depression and higher risk of death are among the outcomes for our no-vacation nation. Some forward-thinking people have tried to reverse this trend, like progressive economist Robert Reich, who has argued in favor of a mandatory three weeks off for all American workers. Congressman Alan Grayson proposed the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, but alas, the bill didn’t even make it to the floor of Congress.

Speaking of Congress, its members seem to be the only people in America getting as much down time as the medieval peasant. They get 239 days off this year.

2016 November 2

Originally published here.


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  • DaveHolden

    Why do articles like this ignore the most obvious cause of this: immigration. What do you think is CAUSING this job insecurity, unemployment, underemployment etc….? This false glut of labor. And immigration is the chief cause of it.

    • smendler

      Go one layer deeper. Why is there immigration?

      • DaveHolden

        Because elites benefit. They are aided by the self-loathing types who support it here.

        • Diego Duarte

          Do you know why there’s immigration? Poor working conditions on Third World nations, derived from right wing economic policies, backed by treaties and corporate interestes (i.e. the US. Washington Consensus). Sounds familiar? No? How about Pinochet, Fujimori, Videla, Bermudez, and every right wing nut the US has either installed or backed during the past 40 years?

          Take my country for instance. Out of its 95 administrations, 92 have been right wing, and only 3 socialist. Yet people act like we’re an underdeveloped nation because of socialism. Ridiculous.

          • Gavin Quick

            Diego Americans blame everyone and everything but the real reasons. The only way to keep in front is to innovate. Returning to old industries depresses wages, while protectionism will render everything outside the US too expensive to buy. Immigration improves the population base and with that, the local market. To dismiss it is to argue against the very thing that made America great in the first place. If they innovate though and come up with things that people cannot guess that they want (as in TVs, cars, telephones, computers of the last century) they will create unique markets that only they have the ability to produce for. If they argue it’s hard to take up new skills, tell them about typists, stenographers, mechanics … all were unheard of until relatively recently.

          • DaveHolden

            Immigration degrades the population and our society. As pointed out in another article at this very site – it makes the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. If you are just a dumping ground of strangers you aren’t going to care about the common good.

          • Gavin Quick

            Says the man whose nation was built on the backs of immigrants.

          • MiguelADC

            I assume that you are latin-american like me. To expand your argument just a little, before the Washington Consensus we had a lot of dictators that were USA puppets, like Trujillo, Somoza, Batista and the rest of this gang. In our case, Trujillo was the product of USA direct invasion (the first one to my country)…And after a 30 year long Trujillo`s dictatorship came a second USA invasion that left us Balaguer for 12 years, another criminal!! And some economists still blame our people for our poverty!! Of course a lot of people fled to the nearest rich country… Main causes for emigration in our countries: Dictators first and inequality later…

          • The US’s behavior toward Latin America has been nothing short of monstrous.

            I couldn’t support a Clinton because of what her husband helped do to Mexico, and what Hillary got up to in Honduras.

            That doesn’t matter to most people in the US though, unfortunately. Most don’t even know how badly Mexico suffered under NAFTA, or anything about the terror rained down under Reagan so that awful American capitalists like those who owned the United Fruit Company could continue engaging in human rights abuses.

            Just know you have allies here. We want it to stop. We’re trying to make them stop.

          • MiguelADC

            A lot of people think that Bill and Hillary have some explanation to do regarding Haití.

          • Certainly. the wage suppression campaign in 2009 was abetted by the state department, which Hillary Clinton was head of at the time.

          • rrr

            Venezuela has “nice”, socialist government. So does Zimbabwe. How is it working out for them?

          • Diego Duarte

            Uruguay has a nice socialist government which works. So does Canada, Australia, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Norway, etc.

            Chile, Peru, and Honduras have nice, libertarian governments that have perpetuated poverty for nearly two centuries.

          • rrr

            LOL?

            Chile is doing more than fine. In fact it’s one of the best economies in Latin America. I’d MUCH rather take it over Venezuela if that’s a choice you’re presenting. Peru and Honduras? Ummm, not at all. You know what corruption is, right?

            They’re also not very libertarian at all. See:
            https://www.mises.ca/since-when-is-honduras-a-libertarian-paradise/

            And even bigger LOL at thinking those European countries are socialist. Ever since WW2 (and some of them were even neutral, like Sweden, that kind of helps, you know), they were busy building capitalism and making free trade agreements with each other and even with USSR. Switzerland socialist, good one. France working out well, even better one – you’re not up to date with recent events in France, are you? Remind me, what happened to Hollande’s 75% supertax. Axed within a year? Oh, okay.

      • Helen Marsh

        I think there are two questions (at least) here: why do people want to leave home and go to a foreign country and why does my government allow and in some cases encourage immigration.

        Sometimes people want to leave home because of war or institutional physical violence. Sometimes it is that they believe, perhaps are encouraged to believe, that they can have a better life elsewhere. So, yes, sometimes people are choosing because they value things more than leisure – but the things may be food and basic health care rather than consumer products. Another question is what part has foreign intervention had in upsetting local culture so that it no longer provides a satisfying life-style for its people.

        I don’t think immigration is usually encouraged to provide cheap labour in competition with local people although with the pressure of people wanting to come this is often the result. Generally, I think, it is easier to use the cheap labor in the country of origin where the worker will not see better working conditions. The preferred immigrant is one who has skills that we did not pay to teach.

    • Helen Marsh

      Is the “glut of labor” false on a global scale? Surely a glut of labor is an inevitable result of labor-saving machines?

    • What about bad management choices? Bad education? Bad relations between management and workers? Qualitatively bad products or products not enough people want? Regulations and laws that make hire and fire possible?

      Fighting about distributing the cake instead of working on how to make the cake bigger?

  • smendler

    Well, now, to be fair, when Congresscritters aren’t on the floor they’re still “working” — working the phones, that is.

  • Antony Davies

    We also could have more vacation time if we chose to live in unheated one-room houses, wore one set of clothes, had no healthcare, no electronics, walked everywhere, and ate one quarter of what we eat now.

    The fact that we don’t choose to do this tells me that we would rather give up all that vacation time in exchange for the things that the extra work makes possible.

    • Helen Marsh

      I’m not sure that it would be that easy, Antony. It is nearly impossible, for most people, to find part-time jobs that enable them to rent even one room houses and feed their children. If they found such a well-paid part-time job they would soon lose it if they did not change their clothes and constantly got sick.

      • Antony Davies

        I’m afraid I wasn’t clear. My point is that the author is saying that people used to have much more leisure time but the author is ignoring that people also had far lower qualities of life. My point is that we could easily obtain the same leisure that people had 200 years ago in exchange for suffering their same quality of life.

        As to it being “nearly impossible for most people to find part-time jobs that enable them to rent even one room houses and feed their children,” the data resoundingly dispute this. Half of households in the US earn at least $55,000. 85% have washers and dryers. 70% have dishwashers. 99% have refrigerators. 97% have microwaves. 95% have roofs that don’t leak. 98% have plumbing that works. 92% are up-to-date on their rent or mortgage. 90% are up-to-date on their utility bills.

        Data source: U.S. Census Bureau, Survey of Income and Program Participation, 2008 Panel, Waves 6 and 9; 2004 Panel, Wave 5; 2001 Panel,Wave 8; 1996 Panel, Wave 8; 1992 Panel, Wave 3; 1991 Panel, Wave 6

        • Helen Marsh

          5% of americans have roofs that leak, 2% have plumbing that does not work, 10% are not up to date with their utility bills? 1 in 10 americans already, without looking for more leisure, are behind with their utility bills and I only just realised how cold your country is compared to anywhere I have lived.

        • Jonjon Taka

          Depends what you define by quality of life. If it means owning a lot of stuff and being able to jetset around the world to see great landscapes, or go eat at expensive restaurants, most of it was available to people 400 years ago without jetsetting anywhere or spending a dime.

          One thing you can be assured of is that 400 years ago those farmers ate good organic vegetables and ate like kings by our current standards. Excellent red wine, lamb meat, pâté de campagne, free spring water, you name it.. The 17th century was also the century of the french haute cuisine, when the art of great gastronomy really took off. With exponentially less people and agriculture as the main industry, the competition for resources was less fierce.

          If you studied any anthropology or traveled around the world, you would also be aware that the typical work hours for hunter-gatherers is and was around 3 to 4h per day. They spent the rest of their time playing, often doing sporting games.

          Also people took care of each other in small communities. No one could die alone and forgotten. No one could go hungry if there was food for others. If you read french or use google translate go read wayanga dot net to learn more about amazon tribes and their way of life. Ours is no better than theirs. The ethnologist Emilie Barrucand has spent most of her lifetime living and protecting their way of life, and showing us why ours should not take precedence over theirs.

          Another eye opening talk you can google is “Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?” (Tedx talk). You don’t have to go back 400 years or 5000 years and live in a tribe either!

          • Antony Davies

            What you’re saying is antithetical to virtually every common account of history. For example, prior to 1800, 95% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (by the UN’s definition) versus less than 10% today. The child mortality rate was over 40% versus 3% today. So, yeah…

          • Jonjon Taka

            Again it depends how you define poverty, not how it’s defined by post industrial nations today. What you call common account of history are for the most part 100% anthropocentric so you need to look at it with a critical mind and read between the lines.

            To take an extreme case as an example, according to the UN a hunter gatherers living in the amazon rain forest or papua new guinea qualifies as living in extreme poverty because they own nothing legally according to our laws and produce nothing measurable. It ignores the fact they live on fertile grounds with plenty of food, clean water sources, and with each family unit having its own hut or house.

            While a homeless in the US or Europe living on food stamps or welfare is infinitely more wealthy than the above indigenous people, you could question the validity of this argument based on their respective quality of life.

  • Witold Kwasnicki

    After reading such kind of articles, I am usually asking myself the question „What it is for?”, “What is a purpose of such kind of writing?”.
    Following this kind of reasoning we can go to conclusion that it was much better 12 000 years ago in times of nomadism – nomads was taking care to find enough food (what usually took them no more than a few hours per day, and they have a leisure time for a rest of the day).
    I think that this kind of thinking and writing presented in that article (and in many other articles published in evonomics.com) flows from what was called by Ludwig von Mises ‘anty-capitalistic mentality’. Am I right?

    • Helen Marsh

      You are right, Witold, to the extent that evonomics definitely thinks that there is something badly wrong with the current expression of capitalism. What are the good parts of capitalism that you think we should keep?

      • robertmkadar

        Good question.

      • Witold Kwasnicki

        What is currently criticized is not capitalism per se, but something which ought to be properly named ‘crony capitalism’.
        Answer to your question can’t be short, but I can refer to some literature, mainly rooted in the austrian school, e.g. Mises ‘Human action’, books of Thomas Sowell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Sowell), or in more popular form, publications by Foundation for Economic Education (https://fee.org/).

        • Helen Marsh

          I agree Witold that Capitalism does not have to have all the bad features that we see today but I do not think that cronyism is the only thing that is wrong with it. I think that there will always be groups of people trying to exploit whatever system we have for the exclusive benefit of themselves and their mates. What is wrong with the current system is that there is nothing in the fundamental set-up that sets limits on the degree to which they can succeed. In fact quite the contrary, our current system encourages and multiplies the effect of such attempts.

    • robertmkadar

      No. you lack nuanced thinking. There’s nothing in here about 12,000 years ago.

      • Witold Kwasnicki

        I was asking about ‘anty-capitalistic mentality’ 🙂

        • robertmkadar

          I don’t know what that means. Care to explain?

    • Jonjon Taka

      YOu don’t have to go back 12,000 years. Google “Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?” (Tedx talk) . You can make it easy now if you’re not stuck in your old ways.

      The act of believing that our current way of life is superior to everything what came before us shows a lack of imagination and our propensity to be brainwashed by whatever dominated our world. This is not about being anti capitalist or anti anything, it’s about being a thinker, someone who can look at himself from above and see absurdities people take for granted.

  • Jessica Hightower

    Never mind that all that free time in the past was “unpaid time off”.

    • Right. It’s also true that (i) in the past most work was much more unpleasant, and (ii) people today derive a great deal of life satisfaction from working. It is also true that you have market responses to desires for greater flexibility like gig jobs and telecommuting, I would not want to stifle these by making everyone hone to Robert Reich’s preferences.

  • Duncan Cairncross

    The problem is very very simple
    The 0.1% has trouserred all of the wealth and this lack of liquid capital has acted as a massive slowdown on all of our economies
    The problem is that too many politicians and “intellectuals” are in the pocket of the 0.1% and they are continuing to advocate entirely the wrong strategy to fix this

    They are like a Victorian doctor who presented with a patient who has lost a lot of blood recommends bleeding him further

  • Jock Doubleday

    Bwahaha, the Rothschild bankers hate capitalism (voluntarism in the marketplace) with a passion, because it levels the playing field. The bankers are monopoly men. They created the Federal Reserve to steal more than half our wealth. More than 50% of our labor goes straight to the Rothschilds in inflation and in various taxes, which is the reason that cartoon figure is chained to his desk.

    • Jock Doubleday

      The title of the article should be, “Before the Rothschilds, Prosperity Was an Option.”

    • molotov pie

      bankers ‘hate capitalism’? what are you smoking! lol. you poor deluded clown. as far as monopolies go… well that’s a central tendency of capitalism; it always works towards concentrating power, wealth and capital. and, no, bartering is not an example of capitalism.

  • John Davies

    Interestingly, Cambodia – an agricultural country with a somewhat medieval mindset (witch stonings, ghosts, outside toilets, low status for women) – has a plethora of holidays – most of them religious – for the rural working poor. The country’s small urban office-bound population ignores many of them.

  • Neville Rigby

    I’m shocked by this article.
    I live in England i earn slightly below the national average income but my working week is 37.5 hours. I work shifts and get no extra for weekend work but my basic holiday entitlement is 28 days per year.
    Added to this are bonus’s. Because my company struggles to keep good workers they give one extra days leave for each years service up to 5 which means after 5 years yoyr on 33 days holiday.
    On top of this if i have no sick days or lateness in a calender year i get a bonus. This bonus increases each year.
    Now that i have reached the maximum of 9 years without a lateness or sick day i get 10 extra holidays for this putting me on 43 days holiday.This is not guaranteed and when i am inevitably sick the extra 10 will disappear.
    When i compare this to the article suggesting American workers get 8 days on average and don’t always use them i’m deeply shocked. I understand your much wealthier than me but I wouldn’t swap you for anything. Having a good work/life balance is considered essential in England. I would consider taking a pay cut if i found an employer offering more holidays or shorter working hours. Money isn’t everything. In France the average working week is 30 to 35 hours and i look at this figure wishing we we’re the same. You guys need to reconsider your priorities. Earn less money, live a more frugal life and live a lot more. You can’t take possesions with you when you die, make memories instead of money.

  • mohinderkumar

    Lady Capital enslaves and charms laborers in its own way as it has its distinct (inhuman) culture. Capitalism ruled by so-called productive and efficient capital either does not have any human work culture or it’s objective is to dominate the laborers. Even a single minute of leisure, rest and thought about it would provide opportunity to the laborers to rebel against misrule and dehumanized discipline of capital –the spectral employer. Moreover, capital impacts adversely on minds to make them insane so as to either work with maddening capacity or do not take interest in work at all. It’s 25% who work (like mads) and 75% who pretend; and lady capital knows all this. Farmers’ suicides in India are the result of drive for private “capital formation” in Agriculture. Capital flourishes; farmer commits suicides! Traditional autonomous farmer thus far was enjoying all those freedoms which are portrayed in this beautiful essay. But the age of idyllic agricultural life was to end somewhere. Capital has taken a heavy toll. Blame it on capital and power of finance. It’s a question of human emancipation from the clutches of surplus finance capital.

  • Derek McDaniel

    Well, I think keynes’ prediction is on track. I work part time close to minimum wage, and yet nearly half my income is discretionary, after paying rent, groceries, transport costs etc. I am fortunate to have very affordable rent. By 2030, a good portion of the country could have as much free time and money as I do. Relatively speaking, prices of goods are falling and rents are rising. This eventually has to break. The practicality of living without rent(housing) is increasing. We have better goods, and more knowledge channels for understanding how to use those goods to thrive in contexts that would not have been healthy before. If we can say no to rent, we also have a lot more power in dictating these political financial relationships, if we do decide to undertake the political burden of owning space. Some might see this as cheating, but I don’t see it that way.

    I like the idea of peasants with lots of freedom and free time.

  • Cal 20 Sailor

    As long as the motto of the greedy and ambitious is “Time is money” we can expect to see every minute wrung for every nickle they can squeeze out of their underlings…

  • geonomist

    That’s not why at a deeper level. Looking deeper, you see that when plagues shifted the balance between land and labor, peasants could negotiate more time off and keep more of the harvest. Still true today. If you want less dumb labor, you better share some land rent — especially urban site rent.

  • Lexi Mize

    Only revolution will cure this. And we won’t have revolution while we can sit, eat nearly free calories and media-tate our way to cognitive-oblivion. There’s just no incentive to rebel — yet.
    The “Occupy” movements? Bah!
    People would have to feel that the risk of loss (of their cushy lives) was greater than the reward they get from those lives.
    “Don’t you dare take away my facebook-dorito-football-doughnut-kardasian-mickyD-couchsitting lifestyle!”

    • honey

      You do understand that poor people in third world countries are dying of hunger and people of Arabia are butchered with bullets to support you lifestyle

      • Lexi Mize

        The range of suffering in the world will only get broader as time goes by. I, of course, generally refer to societies where such things as vacations actually exist — as was the point of the article I believe. My lifestyle is simply a point along a continuum of lifestyles, most of which, I’ll agree, fall below, benefit-wise, my own. But this is not to say that I can’t struggle within my own narrow band of what I perceive as right or wrong. Pointing out vast disparities of societies does what exactly? They exist; will always exist; and only by pursuing greater equality within one can the others participate. One sets one’s own house in order before you change your community, your city, your country.

  • Diggly

    Actually there was more time off than that. People averaged 20hrs/ week.

  • piccolit

    look at how sexist this person is, she starts off saying he was so privileged and ends with she is so oppressed. These people do not deserve a platform to spread disease and misinformation

  • Nick
  • rebdalmas1

    When are we going to realize that what suppresses us is the choice being made by those we have placed to make choices for us? If we keep doing the same thing again and again we continue the same. More hours doing busy paper work in this technological age, and hours spent for years in a box, called school, is the means of building a resonant dissonance from our common sense. It is, because of this system, time for a basic income, as this is time to get off this hamster wheel and start taking care of this earth in ways that value life.

  • Margery Llyn Kempe

    Movement to increase the wages came after the population decline after one of the plagues, and, even then, the landlords in parliament tried and tried to keep them down, and, in England, for example, had a poll tax to boot. The result–a peasants revolts (The most famous one in the early years of King Richard II’s reign). Freedom from serfdom is what the peasants got, not really higher wages.