Author Topic: The average American worker gets less vacation than a medieval peasant  (Read 2599 times)

FireLane

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A sad commentary on our times from Business Insider:

http://www.businessinsider.com/american-worker-less-vacation-medieval-peasant-2016-11

Quote
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.

...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.

I always thought the life of a peasant farmer was backbreaking labor, and during the busy seasons, it probably was. But I guess between planting time and harvest time, there just wasn't that much to do, so why not get drunk and throw big parties?

By all rights, we should be able to work even less than they did. We're far more productive, our technology is better, we're more educated. Instead, we've created a mentality of round-the-clock busyness, of work for the sake of work. Stores are open 24/7, just in case someone wants to buy something. Corporate lawyers work hundred-hour weeks to close a merger deal a few hours earlier. When a server crashes on the other side of the planet, engineers get hauled out of bed in the middle of the night to fix it.

Make no mistake, I wouldn't trade my life for a medieval peasant's. I like indoor plumbing and good dentistry. But one thing I'll say for them, they understood the virtue of living slow lives. I like to think we're the people who've rediscovered that.
« Last Edit: July 10, 2018, 02:45:01 PM by FireLane »

ysette9

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Interesting perspective
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MrUpwardlyMobile

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Since the proliferatonof cheap and effective light sources, and the industrial revolution, people have worked more.
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2Cent

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Somehow I doubt that this was paid leave. More like "Harvesting season is over, see you next year. Hope you have enough food to survive winter." In the US you can also live as a day laborer, make a hut somewhere and live the great peasant life with lots of free time.

SoftwareGoddess

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Someone asked about this article on subreddit AskHistorians last week and was pointed to an answer from a year ago. I found it interesting:

https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/8w5imc/did_feudal_peasants_in_europe_during_the_middle/
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FIRE@50

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Somehow I doubt that this was paid leave. More like "Harvesting season is over, see you next year. Hope you have enough food to survive winter." In the US you can also live as a day laborer, make a hut somewhere and live the great peasant life with lots of free time.
I think this is pretty on point. Americans could easily make enough money working part time to support a peasant standard of living.

The other huge thing missing from the article is....the reason we are all here! The peasants had no concept of FIRE. They worked until they died. So, who had the higher percentage of days off over their entire lifespan?

BDWW

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Right... they didn't work the fields, they just went home, grabbed some wheat from the grain ark, and spend hours milling it into flour. Then they could gather firewood/peat/dung to cook their bread. And find some time to make/mend clothes, make/mend furniture and tools, etc.

Life was work then, and just because you weren't working for the man, doesn't mean you weren't working.

TheGrimSqueaker

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Right... they didn't work the fields, they just went home, grabbed some wheat from the grain ark, and spend hours milling it into flour. Then they could gather firewood/peat/dung to cook their bread. And find some time to make/mend clothes, make/mend furniture and tools, etc.

Life was work then, and just because you weren't working for the man, doesn't mean you weren't working.

^^^ This. ^^^

Being a peasant was a 24x7x365 job. But only a fraction of time was devoted to any one task. A person might be "primarily" a peasant who worked the owner's land, yet that wasn't his sole occupation.

Depending on the region, after the harvest was in there still wouldn't be enough to feed everyone. In some areas, the men and older boys would leave the region and spend the winter migrating to other parts of Europe in search of enough day-labor to feed themselves. Even if they stayed, there were countless chores related to staying alive. Collecting firewood, feeding and tending the animals, and performing repairs to the thatching in the hut consumed time. So did fetching water, fishing or hunting (possibly poaching) for a meal, setting snares for the rabbits, and other means of getting food. The women would be filling any spare moments with piece-work such as knitting or lace making to bring in a little bit of cash for the items that had to be purchased.
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Jon Bon

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Right... they didn't work the fields, they just went home, grabbed some wheat from the grain ark, and spend hours milling it into flour. Then they could gather firewood/peat/dung to cook their bread. And find some time to make/mend clothes, make/mend furniture and tools, etc.

Life was work then, and just because you weren't working for the man, doesn't mean you weren't working.

+1000

Like really? Anything from Business Insider needs to be taken with a metric ton of salt.

I think if you looked at leisure time, it would not even be close. For instance, they did not have time to post on MMM back then!


By the River

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...I think if you looked at leisure time, it would not even be close. For instance, they did not have time to post on MMM back then!

Man, a medieval peasant MMM forum would be great
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koshtra

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I was an academic medievalist, once upon a time, and the answer is -- it's complicated, and there's peasants and peasants, and there were flourishing peasant communities and hellholes, and good lords and bad lords, and generalizing is really difficult.

But in general I think moderns tend to overemphasize the drudgery and subservience of peasant life. They partied a lot and played a lot. suffered through the occasional famine, but lived high in the good years. There was always plenty to do and there was no such thing as retirement or being safe from a beating, but there was also no such thing as unemployment or being laid off or evicted from your community. It's difficult to judge without modern measures, but if you immerse yourself in medieval writings you get the distinct impression that mental illness was very rare. You worked like hell at harvest-time, for sure; but you boozed it up and danced a lot on feast-days.

My impression, for what it's worth, is that the average medieval European peasant was considerably happier than the average modern American.

StarBright

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I was an academic medievalist, once upon a time, and the answer is -- it's complicated, and there's peasants and peasants, and there were flourishing peasant communities and hellholes, and good lords and bad lords, and generalizing is really difficult.

But in general I think moderns tend to overemphasize the drudgery and subservience of peasant life. They partied a lot and played a lot. suffered through the occasional famine, but lived high in the good years. There was always plenty to do and there was no such thing as retirement or being safe from a beating, but there was also no such thing as unemployment or being laid off or evicted from your community. It's difficult to judge without modern measures, but if you immerse yourself in medieval writings you get the distinct impression that mental illness was very rare. You worked like hell at harvest-time, for sure; but you boozed it up and danced a lot on feast-days.

My impression, for what it's worth, is that the average medieval European peasant was considerably happier than the average modern American.

thumbs up to this excellent, informative post!

Slee_stack

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Pleasant Peasants?

dougules

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I was an academic medievalist, once upon a time, and the answer is -- it's complicated, and there's peasants and peasants, and there were flourishing peasant communities and hellholes, and good lords and bad lords, and generalizing is really difficult.

But in general I think moderns tend to overemphasize the drudgery and subservience of peasant life. They partied a lot and played a lot. suffered through the occasional famine, but lived high in the good years. There was always plenty to do and there was no such thing as retirement or being safe from a beating, but there was also no such thing as unemployment or being laid off or evicted from your community. It's difficult to judge without modern measures, but if you immerse yourself in medieval writings you get the distinct impression that mental illness was very rare. You worked like hell at harvest-time, for sure; but you boozed it up and danced a lot on feast-days.

My impression, for what it's worth, is that the average medieval European peasant was considerably happier than the average modern American.

That's mildly shocking given how harsh some aspects of medieval Europe were.  I guess we really misunderstand what makes a person happy. 

driftwood

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This reminds me of the Little House on the Prairie books...

Pa took a week or two to build a house. Then he owned a house (no debt!). We buy a house, then spend 30 years paying for it. 30 years later, we own it, but then we've also paid interest, and maintenance, and may still be in debt for 'upgrades'.

I think with our scientific advances we have the potential to have the best of both worlds... work enough to earn what we need to cover our basic needs, work some more (if we want) to buy toys and vacations, but be free from the 40 hour work week mindset for hourly and the 60+ hour work week for salaried folks.  BUT like the humans we are, we fucked it all up.

I was bummed when I discovered that even if I bought a house/land and paid it off, I would still have to earn money FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE to pay to keep that house/land, even if it didn't need maintenance. There went my plans to homestead, where my only ongoing costs could be what I needed to buy stuff I couldn't make/grow myself. Thanks property tax. So no, you can't be a peasant in America, take unpaid vacation days, and just live in your peasant hovel. You must continue to pay for your hovel, even after it's paid off.
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mm1970

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This reminds me of the Little House on the Prairie books...

Pa took a week or two to build a house. Then he owned a house (no debt!). We buy a house, then spend 30 years paying for it. 30 years later, we own it, but then we've also paid interest, and maintenance, and may still be in debt for 'upgrades'.

I think with our scientific advances we have the potential to have the best of both worlds... work enough to earn what we need to cover our basic needs, work some more (if we want) to buy toys and vacations, but be free from the 40 hour work week mindset for hourly and the 60+ hour work week for salaried folks.  BUT like the humans we are, we fucked it all up.

I was bummed when I discovered that even if I bought a house/land and paid it off, I would still have to earn money FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE to pay to keep that house/land, even if it didn't need maintenance. There went my plans to homestead, where my only ongoing costs could be what I needed to buy stuff I couldn't make/grow myself. Thanks property tax. So no, you can't be a peasant in America, take unpaid vacation days, and just live in your peasant hovel. You must continue to pay for your hovel, even after it's paid off.
Unless it's an RV or a van.  Even then, it's work to find a place to park it.

Land, life, space... is not free anymore.

Just Joe

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Pleasant Peasants?

Pleasant peasants eating pheasant for pleasure?

Dabnasty

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Pleasant Peasants?

Pleasant peasants eating pheasant for pleasure?

I resent pleasant peasants eating pheasant. I want some pheasant.

partdopy

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A sad commentary on our times from Business Insider:

http://www.businessinsider.com/american-worker-less-vacation-medieval-peasant-2016-11

Quote
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.

...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.

I always thought the life of a peasant farmer was backbreaking labor, and during the busy seasons, it probably was. But I guess between planting time and harvest time, there just wasn't that much to do, so why not get drunk and throw big parties?

By all rights, we should be able to work even less than they did. We're far more productive, our technology is better, we're more educated. Instead, we've created a mentality of round-the-clock busyness, of work for the sake of work. Stores are open 24/7, just in case someone wants to buy something. Corporate lawyers work hundred-hour weeks to close a merger deal a few hours earlier. When a server crashes on the other side of the planet, engineers get hauled out of bed in the middle of the night to fix it.

Make no mistake, I wouldn't trade my life for a medieval peasant's. I like indoor plumbing and good dentistry. But one thing I'll say for them, they understood the virtue of living slow lives. I like to think we're the people who've rediscovered that.

I bet any reader of that article  could work as little or even much less than a medieval peasant, if they decided to actually live like one.

Living in a 1 room house you built out of local sticks/straw/mud that you and your family share with your animals, having no electricity, running water, phones, cars, insurance, etc... is probably pretty cheap.  Honestly, I could probably afford this lifestyle working less than one day a month to pay taxes on the large amount of land needed to be self sufficient.

I do prefer to have a car, normal house with carpeting, A/C, electricity, plumbing, and not having to sleep with my dogs though.  The problem people have today with work/life balance is one of an ever increasing amount of 'necessary' items and luxuries, not one of time.  I wonder why the article doesn't discuss that
« Last Edit: July 13, 2018, 02:55:28 PM by partdopy »

The Fat Baby G. Malenkov

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I was an academic medievalist, once upon a time, and the answer is -- it's complicated, and there's peasants and peasants, and there were flourishing peasant communities and hellholes, and good lords and bad lords, and generalizing is really difficult.

But in general I think moderns tend to overemphasize the drudgery and subservience of peasant life. They partied a lot and played a lot. suffered through the occasional famine, but lived high in the good years. There was always plenty to do and there was no such thing as retirement or being safe from a beating, but there was also no such thing as unemployment or being laid off or evicted from your community. It's difficult to judge without modern measures, but if you immerse yourself in medieval writings you get the distinct impression that mental illness was very rare. You worked like hell at harvest-time, for sure; but you boozed it up and danced a lot on feast-days.

My impression, for what it's worth, is that the average medieval European peasant was considerably happier than the average modern American.
One of the things that I think is funniest about the received narrative of industrialization is that people have an impression that peasants or farmers in general voluntarily up and hoofed it to the cities, drawn by the glorious opportunities within...

When in reality urban life was far, far worse than rural life during the era of industrialization, and rural people were always, always forced from the land by enclosures and taxation and the seizure of land to build a railroad or dam or soccer stadium. All the capitalists in 18th century England complained constantly that the no good rural sorts would just sort of loaf around all day, living on their precious land with their cow while the sun did all the work for them. And NOBODY wanted to leave their bucolic homestead to idk, die of black lung in a fuckin borax mine or whatever, presumably on account of sloth (a sin). So they had to make them do it, using guns. And this is still ongoing, for reasons that are fairly easy to illustrate...

A major policy of the present government in China is to alleviate conditions of rural poverty by moving the remaining ~120m or so people who still live in essentially premodern communities to apartment towers in cities. The people living in those places are largely self sufficient in food and have very minimal cash income, which they earn by selling surplus, handcrafts, in the form of pensions that date to the Mao era and are denominated in amounts of like, tens of yuan per month. Per capita cash income per year in these places is like $300. That money is spent on like, needles and hand tools and cigarettes, stuff like that. When they are moved to a city they do get electricity and running water (unlike during the urbanization of Europe), but they also have to pay for those things, along with food (since they can't grow it themselves anymore), clothes (since they can't make fabric themselves anymore), and so on. That's "fine" because manual jobs paying a few hundred dollars per month are relatively abundant in Chinese cities and therefore these people are able to live. Arguably, they are better off -- but only just. Economically, however, their income is ten or fifteen TIMES higher than before, and that's GDP for you my friend. The imposition of commodity dependence on people who were formerly outside of capitalism is one of the few places where markets can still expand.

aasdfadsf

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The 14th century was when the black plague went nuts and killed about half of all people. The survivors actually had it pretty good because not only did they inherit a lot of stuff, but their labor became far more valuable. It was the precipitating event that eventually ended serfdom in the West. 

A better comparison would have been... any period of the Middle Ages other than that.

Kyle Schuant

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That's mildly shocking given how harsh some aspects of medieval Europe were.  I guess we really misunderstand what makes a person happy. 
There's actually a lot of research that a certain degree of hardship in people's lives makes them - well, not necessarily happier, but more fulfilled. As well, they're too damned busy to get depressed.

But happiness is often decided relatively. The person in the household on $50,000 is happy in a street where everyone else is on $20,000, but unhappy in a street where others are on $200,000.

It's said that about 50% of happiness comes from genetic, background and illness sorts of factors, things you can't really control; 10% comes from the financial situation, and 40% from the things the person chooses to do with their life, like what job they do or who they marry, plus all the day-to-day and attitude stuff.

However, this picture of a moment understates the effect of money, because that 10% affects the 40%. Being broke means having few choices, being well-off means many choices. And this is the aim of FIRE - leaving you with a completely free choice of what you do with your day in terms of earning money.

On the other hand, too many choices can make people unhappy, since they can't decide and end up choosing nothing. I see this a lot on another forum where people talk about dating. In a medieval village of 150 people you might get to choose from either Piers the buck-toothed pig farmer and Arthur the handsome wife-beater, after a while Piers started looking pretty good. But now with most of the West living in big cities with access to Tinder, you can swipe "no" on 150 people in about sixty seconds - and 5 years later you're still single. So as you or your country become more prosperous you have more choices, and end up choosing nothing, which leads to a certain ennui.

There is somewhere a sensible middle ground...
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Kyle Schuant

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The problem people have today with work/life balance is one of an ever increasing amount of 'necessary' items and luxuries, not one of time.  I wonder why the article doesn't discuss that
If you have a luxury for long enough it becomes a necessity to you.

And of course, you can have necessities presented in a luxurious manner... go to a fancy restaurant, send your kids to a $20k school, and so on.
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TheWifeHalf

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TheHusbandHalf works 180 days a yr, 12 hour shifts. vacations are not figured into that and I think he's up to 3-4 weeks. With modern advances, there are jobs that are all day, all year. - you just can't shut down an oil refinery.
Another way we are different - we hope to never have to live an urban life and have arranged things that we probably won't have to. Different strokes for different folks I guess.
Fun comparison, but happy to not have to live the peasant life.
(THH is now counting his days left to work until retirement - now it's 87 shifts)