Americans Have Less Free Time Than Medieval Peasants

It probably goes without saying that we Americans have a lot more going for us nowadays than our ancestors did several centuries ago: public health and sanitation, plentiful food and water (for the most part), democracy and free press (of a sort). But this article from Business Insider points out one big area in which we resoundingly (and perhaps surprisingly) lose out: vacation time.

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.


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.

Which isn’t to say that the life of the Medieval peasant was all fun and leisure. Fear, oppression, disease, and violence were rife. But that’s exactly the issue: even societies as backwards and underdeveloped as those of the Middle and Medieval ages at least made time for rest and recreation.

While a lot of that also had to do with the nature of their economies — the vast majority of people were employed in agriculture, which was dictated by the vagaries of nature — there is no reason why, with all our innovation and resources, we cannot somehow find a way to be productive without wearing ourselves out.

Indeed, a lack of leisure leads to an overall reduction in productivity, because humans, being humans, cannot be worked like inanimate tools or machines (and in any event, even equipment breaks down eventually, or needs maintenance):

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.

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.

Much of this has to do with our culture’s obsession with work and derisiveness towards leisure; we look down on the first person to leave for the day, or downright shame anyone who dares to ask for vacation time. The Washington Post had a good piece recently that questions our prioritization of labor over leisure:

Many victories of the labor movement were premised on the precise notion that the majority of one’s life shouldn’t be made up of work: It was the socialist Robert Owen who championed the eight-hour workday, coining the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” For Owen, it was important not only that workers had time to sleep after a hard day’s labor, but also that they had time to pursue their own interests — to enjoy leisure activities, cultivate their own projects, spend time with their families and so forth. After all, a life with nothing but work and sleep is akin to slavery, and not particularly dignified. As Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs recently told Politico: “Work does have some value and some dignity, but I don’t think working 14 hours and not being able to pay your bills, or working two jobs and not being able — there’s nothing inherently dignified about that.”

Nor is there anything dignified in parents being unable to take time off to care for and bond with infants, or in the elderly being forced to avoid retirement for lack of funds, or from pitting the two needs against each other, as a recent policy plan has proposed. Nor is there much dignity in pouring all of one’s energy into the purposes of another — which is what it generally means to work for a boss — with little time or money spared to learn or contemplate or travel or enjoy oneself. And in the United States, neither parental leave nor retirement nor vacation is a sure thing: In 2016, for instance, more than half of workers left vacation days unused, either unable to afford time off or unwilling to risk disappointing their employers.

here’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work. I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth. Instead, we should focus more of our political energies on making sure that American workers have the dignity of rest, the freedom to enjoy their lives outside of labor and independence from the whims of their employers.

Anecdotally, I see a lot more fellow Americans agreeing that leisure is more important than work, and lamenting how employers and coworkers rarely agree. (This is especially true of young people, who are less well off than past generations were at the same age and more frugal.)

Indeed, this disparity between how much we value leisure yet how much we’re made to work reflects some deeply rooted, and thus difficult to dislodge, cultural and economic norms. The first person to leave work, even if it is on time and after getting everything done, gets side-eyed. The employee who dares to ask for vacation is often judged for it. We are often reluctant to take a break or get time off for fear of being judged or even denied career advancement. Working to the bone for companies who regard you as expendable is seen as the surest way to get a raise. (The so-called Protestant work ethic  may account for some of these norms and ideas.)

Yet I’d wager even those putting pressure on us to work hard would themselves not mind some time off — such is the power and persistence of sociocultural values that everyone thinks everyone else will judge them for breaking a norm everyone secretly wants to break. Who would dare make the first move?

Of course, there is also the fact that a lot of people work hard due to lack of economic opportunities, forcing them to take two or more bad paying jobs to make ends meet. The problem is both economic and cultural, which means that addressing it will likely take a multi-prong and gradual approach, especially on the sociocultural side.

But given the growing opprobrium towards corporate culture and practices, especially among young people, it may only be a matter of time before things change (especially if workplaces become more democratized and accountable to employees).

What are your thoughts?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s