Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes was the world’s best economist – but let’s not pretend that he was much of a fortune-teller. That generation’s grandchildren, he predicted, would work just three hours a day, and even working that much would be a matter of choice. Society would be so very wealthy and technology so advanced, that every day would be all about leisure. The practice of spending endless time in an office would be consigned to history.
Needless to say, JMK was wrong. For all that our we now have undreamed-of technologies – and for all that our standard of living has improved out of sights – that generation’s great-grandchildren actually work longer hours than they did, retire later and have much less holiday time. In theory, we all work a 40-hour week, but in practice, it’s a whole lot more than that and our hours seem to be growing every year.
But isn’t this just how life works?
Historically speaking, the hardest-working period of human existence seems to have been during the industrial revolution of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. All those new-fangled machines, mines and factories needed endless numbers of workers to man them and labour laws weren’t exactly up to scratch. Most people worked around 12 hours a day and at least six days a week.
Prior to this, for thousands of years, feudal peasants worked an eight-hour day at worst and tended to break it up with a drink, sit or snooze. They did lots of tilling and ploughing, to be sure, but they also drank lots of mead. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” says the economist Juliet Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”
“The labouring man will take his rest long in the morning, a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work,” wrote one observer in 1570 – and “at noon he must have his sleeping time.” “When his hour cometh at night,” what’s more, “he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth.”
Shor estimates that – once you factor in all the non-harvest times, and never-ending boozy festivals – your average medieval peasant enjoyed a minimum of eight weeks off a year, perhaps even up to six months.
Do we really need to work as hard as we do these days? I suspect that, a few hundred years from now, this generation’s descendants will look back on our lifestyle and, frankly, find us all a bit odd.