The average American worker takes less vacation time than a medieval peasant

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

A history of dwindling vacation days

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 light bulb came on the scene.

Medieval peasant mealWikimedia Commons

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 US 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.

The consequences of constantly working

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 former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras have sent 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.

manufacturing workers napping in factoryflickr / Robert S. Donovan

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: depressionand 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. In recent years, they’ve gotten upward of 239 days in vacation time.

16 thoughts on “The average American worker takes less vacation time than a medieval peasant

  1. Working class is nothing but working slaves, I say a sporting joust and day of swords. What say ye and the masses?

    1. Here, here! But it will be hard to find horses willing to put up with their stench as they shit their pants before the joust even begins.

  2. If you work a standard 40 hour week and get nine paid holidays and two weeks vacation per year, you work a total of 1,928 hours. That’s just the way the math works out. Generally, as you work longer at a job you get more vacation; each week of added vacation drops 40 hours off the total. At my retirement, I was getting five weeks vacation (32 years at the same job) plus 9 paid holidays so my standard work year was 1,808 hours. None of the above includes overtime on either week days or weekends. This article seems to be saying a standard 40 hour week is an abusive situation. I guess if you’re lazy and feel the world owes you a living then maybe it’s correct. By far and away, hard working Americans believe in honest hard work. The newer generations of slackers, parasites, sponges and bums feel they are owed a living and cower at the mention of honest hard work. But that’s not true of the real people who built this country and sustained it for so many years.

    1. I have three sons in the work force, one who holds a bachelor’s degree in math and physics. They are being used by internationalists. They work outrageous hours for substandard wages. This isn’t the world you worked through and to come on here with your good ol’ boy, it’s everybody’s fault but the international industrialists, makes me want to puke.
      You don’t have a fu#@king clue as to what today’s workers face, not to mention the fact that our Bill of Rights has been removed and our resources are being raped by the international elite.
      F#@k you. Go lick the feet of your masters somewhere else.

    2. Honest hard work?

      You mean like that tranny loving cock roach Barack Obama? Or that fat fkg hair cluster fk Donald (golf like a MTFKR on a permanent vacation)Trump the hump?

      Hard work could be construed as a constipated day on the toilet, 40 hours a week has nothing to do with the definition of hard work. Hard work is having to read your comment on the definition of hard work, I should have been paid $60,000 just to get through it without puking blood.

      Where the hell do you clowns come from anyway?

  3. We have deteriorated into a nation of modern day slaves. We’re treated like dairy cows, milked until dry, then sent off to the slaughter house. It amazes me how all of our national holidays have all disappeared, many because they are “offensive” or “exclusive” or “politically incorrect”, yet the Jews, Muslims, and other religious groups stick to theirs like a military regiment. Do you want to know why we no longer have any time to ourselves despite all the technology and other advances?!? It’s simple: those who are in power don’t want a world where people are free and can enjoy themselves. It’s all about power and control, not money, but the power and control that they can wield over others. I assure you, for every disease, there is a hidden cure. For every task, there are robots or other machines that can do those tasks. It’s about power and control, that is all it ever has been and all it ever will be.

    1. “I assure you, for every disease, there is a hidden cure.”

      Not hidden, Sunfire, at least not from honest researchers.

      Colloidal silver will kill any disease.

  4. The commies made endless work fashionable among the yuppies (or “young professionals”), who now brag about working 70 hours per week, or holding two jobs. They see it as proof of their ambition or worthiness rather than the slavery it actually is.

    The average animal living in the wild works two hours per day to feed himself and his family.

  5. I remember years ago seeing a documentary about the medieval peasant and their life, while it had many problems and what less than pleasant the historian stated that totaling what the crown (this was in England) demanded in payment each year totaled about FOUR WEEKS of work in the entire YEAR as being taxed, the rest was their own to use and spend!

    How far have we fallen… Workers are now lesser than a friggin feudal serf!

    1. Sorry, forgot the worst one, the greedy corporations, who now steal all of the profits from labor (what makes all corps sucessful) for their directors, who do not labor at all. Same old slavery system, different products.

      1. I cant get the old Huey Lewis song out of my head that almost says: I’m taking what theyre givin, cause Im (callin it) workin for a livin!

  6. Virtually everyone who isn’t a slave to a job is a slave to debt anyway.

    That’s been the plan all along.

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