Did We Somehow Work Less in Medieval Times Than We Do Today? This Woman Thinks So

If you're feeling burn out and tired all the time, it might not have anything to do with you. Evidently we're working more now than we ever have. Yay?

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Oct. 4 2023, Published 6:46 p.m. ET

Most humans work five days a week with two days off which, percentage-wise, feels a bit lopsided. And let's be honest, Friday night doesn't count because we're too exhausted from that day's work to go out. Saturday is great for plans which usually knocks out Sunday because maybe you're hungover or perhaps you have to run errands. Next thing you know it's Monday, and you're left wondering where the time went.

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For one woman who goes by @debateher on TikTok, she blames the rise of capitalism for our longer workweeks and shorter rest periods. Could this be true? Was life easier when people were defecating into buckets and dumping them into streams? I'm not sure that's true but maybe @debateher, who I'm calling Chelsea, makes a good case for this.

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We don't want to work, we want to bang on the drums all day.

According to Chelsea, up until the 1600s humans worked four to six hours a day. In The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor, we learned that in medieval times, a typical workday lasted from dawn to dusk. However, "work was intermittent — called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner."

During large parts of the year, a typical workday was no more than eight hours. And when laborers did work in service of their lords, "one day's work was considered half a day, and if a serf worked an entire day, this was counted as two 'days-works.'"

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Working at a leisurely pace with breaks is what some believe is the best working conditions for humans. So, if this is what will get the most productive bang for our buck, why did it change?

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Here's where I get a little confused. Chelsea asserts that things started to go south when people were expected to show up to work at a certain town. She claims people used to be able to come to work when they were ready, but if folks were sporadically working sun up to sundown, isn't everyone beginning at sunrise?

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Some folks, like historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, have made it their life's work to study, well, work. He has tracked how leisure and employment have changed over centuries, and guess what? It's a lot.

Benjamin told NPR that the history of humans working can be broken down into three chapters. First we went "from hunting and gathering through early farming, when humans worked basically just as much as they needed to survive." This accounted for way less than a 40-hour week. Then we worked as needed in order to survive.

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After the Industrial Revolution, "factories spring up with machines whirring from dawn until dusk, often six days a week," so that "70 or more working hours would have been common, at least in the early 1800s in the U.S." Organized labor birthed a 10-hour workday but people quickly realized this was too exhausting.

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Apparently people's productivity declined rapidly after eight hours. Then in the 1920s, "Henry Ford famously adopts an eight-hour workday, though, in part, that is so he can run his factories 24 hours a day." However, this didn't usher in the permanent 40-hour work week. The Great Depression did that. The government shortened the workweek so a 24-hour day wasn't possible; thus, they were able to spread the small amount of jobs out to more people.

Is a shorter workweek even possible? Unfortunately a change like this would require a massive overhaul from the government. If it happened in fits and spurts, chaos would ensue. That sounds exhausting. If anyone needs me, I will be taking one of my several daytime naps.

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