Do You Work Longer Hours Than a Medieval Peasant?

Studying 13th-century work habits reveals a surprising contrast with American workers of today

Nancy Bilyeau

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Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Incredible as it may sound, the average modern American puts in longer hours at his or her work than the average medieval peasant.

While many people feel pressure to work long hours, even the hardest-hit victims of the “gigs economy” might assume that at least they don’t work as hard as a medieval peasant.

But that assumption would be wrong.

Juliet Schor, a Professor of Sociology at Boston College, explained in her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, that the average American in 1987 was working about 1,949 hours annually, while an adult male peasant in 13th-century England racked up approximately 1,620 hours yearly.

The average number of hours worked has gone down a little since the late 1980s. According to the latest figures, on average, a full-time employee in the United States works 1,801 hours per year, or 37.5 hours per week. But that’s still more than their medieval counterparts.

Economists of the last century have turned out to be quite wrong about the direction work was taking.

According to Business Insider, “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.”

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic made people work more. They might not have been putting in their hours at an office but they were trapped by their jobs nonetheless.

The Economist reported on research showing that in April and May of 2020 the average working day was 30 minutes longer than in January and February, which was before the lockdown.

In recent articles, the work culture at online startup Oxy Media has drawn widespread disapproval. One 24-year-old producer ended up in the hospital after two weeks’ worth of 18 hour days that she felt pressured to perform. She told CNN she feared letting her boss down.

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Nancy Bilyeau

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘The Orchid Hour' www.nancybilyeau.com