Overworked


As I prepare myself for another week of work, this passage comes to mind… we may tell ourselves otherwise, but we are certainly overworked by any measure.

One of capitalism/s most durable myths is that it has reduced human toil. This myth is typically defended by a comparison of the modern forty-hour week with its seventy- or eighty-hour counterpart in the nineteenth century. The implicit — but rarely articulated — asumption is that the eighty-hour standard has prevailed for centuries. The comparison conjures up the dreary life of medieval peasants, toiling steadily from dawn to dusk. We are asked to imagine the journeyman artisan in a cold, damp garret rising even before the sun, laboring by candlelight late into the night.

These images are backwards projections of modern work patterns. And they are false. Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely, the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that working hours in the mid nineteenth century constitute the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.

Consider a typical working day in the medeival period. It stretched from dawn to dusk (siteen hours in the summer and eight in winter) but, as the Bishop Pilkington has noted, work was intermittent — called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap and dinner. Depending on time and place, there were also midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times. During slack periods, which accounted for a large part of the year, adherence to regular working hours was not usual… The pace of work was also far below modern standards — in part because the general pace of life in medieval society was leisurely.

Juliet Schor, The Overworked American

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