Working hours, the first 12000 years: the historical decline of free time

According to a common view our lives have become easier over the past centuries. Whereas pre-modern people were burdened by the harsh conditions of agricultural society, our modern technological societies supposedly have brought us not only astonishing wealth but also leisure. We call this „progress.“ But the view is false. A good case can be made that the answer to the question whether a modern citizen, a medieval peasant or a Stone Age human had to expend the most effort to make a living is not the one most of us would probably expect. There is something to be learned for the next 10 years from this long history. By Daniel Plenge

If you happen to spend some time on social media, you will have noticed that there has been much talk about the craziness of 2020. But have we really appreciated the craziest thing that happened? Work society, in fact, witnessed the weirdest and most frightening thing it can imagine: It was forced to reduce work via lockdowns, and as the common feeling had it, this reduction was radical.

Economies were said to have been shut down. Even more, the economy was said to be in need of reconstruction similar to post-war times.

This indicates that the normal principle of our societies is to maximize work. Rising unemployment figures are considered as symptoms of societal illness. Recovery requires reforms, most often of the kind that demands sacrifices from some group or other. An increasing volume of work – the totality of work hours in a time period (a big pile of lifetime similar to GDP as a pile goods, services & fictions) – is judged to be positive.

Now, wait a second. As a private person you may already notice that this is not self-evident. Historically, the same scepticism is justified.

However, if we take such criteria for granted, then the decade after the financial crisis was a boom in Germany. The volume of work reached the high level of 1991, unemployment-figures declined, and the number of people employed increased. When people work much, then also GDP tends to be in good health.

The coronavirus brought this trend to its end.

The number of people working short time (Kurzarbeit or government funded part-time furlough) reached 6 million in April. In October, German unemployment numbers were 556000 above the level of the previous year, when the number of Kurzarbeiter declined to reach 2.58 million.

Generally, it is accepted that 2020 emphasized social inequalities and ideological differences. During the summer recess we witnessed a controversy over working time that most of us will have missed.

The reemergence of a question

In July, the leader of the German left or Die Linke, Katja Kipping, contributed the proposal of a 4-day-week in the media fuss. The reactions were as they could have been expected to be. It should not be hard to find the same in different countries.

The leader of the German liberals (FDP), Christian Linder, answered via twitter with the purely rhetorical question whether any society had ever liberated itself from a crisis with less work. When the summer lightning had already disappeared without much of a trace, the candidate for the party chairmanship of the conservatives (CDU), Friedrich Merz, admonished us “not to get used to the idea that we could live without work”. Merz was shocked by not facing the usual number of employees ready to serve him when he stayed in a hotel. Again, a short media hype followed.

„We have to go back to work”, Merz said, as if he would include himself.

This invites naive questions: do we really? If yes, to what extent?

What do we have to do?

To pose such questions seems strange in times in which many across the globe fear to lose their jobs, have already lost them, would love to go without Kurzarbeit or furlough, or have been looking in vain for some work for a long time or meanwhile given up.

And indeed, it is strange to pose such questions because questions about work and its time go to the nerve centre of modern society.

We may have forgotten this because the whole problem went into the background in the neoliberal era. Before, working time had been a collective demand of organized labour for a century. In the era of individualization, workfare and increasing precarity, a middle class in constant fear of social decline, the tendency was and is to be happy to have a job at all.

Perhaps it helps to turn to history in order to put some distance between us and contemporary stereotypical views. The future then might turn out to be not as frightening, from a social perspective.

Here is a little, and I hope revealing, quiz. The question is not so easy to formulate. But let’s take the following: 

Which human group in history had to expend the most effort to make a living?

What do you think?

Nobody has asked the question before, so I have to speculate about common opinions. But I suppose that the majority will have chosen the Stone Age human as an answer.

Stone Age hunter-gatherers are often described as “primitive”. According to one narrative, culture as well is taken to start only with the Neolithic Revolution, the (supposed) invention of agriculture only 10000 years ago. Then, allegedly, enough societal time became free so that cities and states could be founded on the basis of this surplus. Very slowly science and technology developed, and finally, capitalism emerged in the 18th century, its releasing human ingenuity led us on a steady path toward leisure-society.

This is what we call “progress”, or part of it.

Our lives, we think, certainly have become much easier. Well, our belief is not totally beside the point.

The proof of this view is quickly delivered and always similar: working hours have drastically declined before and after 1945.

Follow the link to the source.

Although such numbers are correct as far as such statistics can be accurate, something could be wrong with them.

I was recently irritated in reading the work of the anthropologist David Graeber. He claimed about peasants and servants in the dark Middle Ages that

their work schedule was nothing remotely as regular or disciplined as the current nine-to-five—the typical medieval serf, male or female, probably worked from dawn to dusk for twenty to thirty days out of any year, but just a few hours a day otherwise, and on feast days, not at all. And feast days were not infrequent.

He furthermore wrote that “even medieval serfs did not work even close to a forty-hour week.

David Graeber

Serfs in the Middle Ages worked less than free citizens in modernity?

Historians count an astonishing number of up to 115 feast days, and we still have to add Sundays. This amounts to more than 160 days, although there are huge differences relative to specific regions. However, time was in the powerful hands of the church. And churches prohibited work on about 40% of all days, 3 days a week.

A different question is how far people followed this. For instance, animals still had to be fed. But other estimates suggest that a medieval working day was regularly not longer than 8 hours. You can also find imperial regulations that restrict shifts to 6 hours in mining, and at the same time prohibit double shifts.

Let’s break this down to a dry and irritating statement: the 8-hour-day was established in Germany in 1918, within a 6-day-workweek.

In the present, Germans still can enjoy 10 to 12 (occasionally 14) feast days. In contrast to the Middle Ages – and US-Americans until today – there are 20 days of minimal holidays fixated in the law. And at least in theory, since the 60’s „Saturday Dad is mine”, i.e. Saturdays are “standardly” or “normally” free, though not for the total work force.

Juliet Schor

Another grand myth

Juliet B. Schor, an economist currently teaching as a sociologist at the Boston College, called it a grand myth that capitalism would have reduced human toil. This was back in the early 90s.

For the first time, as far as I know, she calculated yearly working hours for typical pre-modern workers and compared them with average working hours of modern workers after the year 1800.

Here are two numbers: a British peasant worked 1620 hours per year around the year 1200. A worker in mining post-1400 worked 1980 hours. By themselves these numbers tell us nothing.

But in comparison with other data they allow an astonishing historical insight.

Data for the pre-1960 period are taken from Juliet Schor, The Overworked American. The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (go here). The original chart with more information you may find here. Post-1945 data are added and about Germany.

Modern society made working hours explode in the very moment the permanent technological revolution began: at the onset of the industrial revolution. It is only after this explosion that a reduction in working hours took place in the global North until the end of World War II.

Of course, to the contrary we would at first (somewhat naively) believe that technological innovations ease the so-called work-life.

However, there was a price to be paid in return for this. The amount of work performed per hour was increased. A metaphor that is used to describe this development is “densification.” The more scientific term with a positive sound is “productivity”.

A medieval hour of work is something completely different than such an hour in the 19th century or today. Mechanical clocks were not known until the 14th century, therefore also hours and minutes. Time wasn’t money, so people could take their time. To the horror of the first generations of capitalists, even through the whole 19th century workers, for example, took a nap and drank beer during work even in the emerging industrial sector.

One result of our quiz then is that medieval peasants worked more that the average citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. But this is only true if the average worker we use in our comparison entered the labour market after the turn of the millennium. Still in 1960, an average West-German citizen worked 66 eight-hour-days more.

Working hours in the Stone Age

I don’t want to keep up the suspense for longer. Stone-Age humans had to expend the least effort of all.

Who would have thought that?

Marshall Sahlins

In the 70s Marshall Sahlins revolutionized anthropology by correcting the view that Stone Age humans lived a hard and miserable life full of deprivation.

Hunter-gatherer culture he called the “original affluent society”, because it can satisfy its needs with small effort and in a self-determined rhythm. Stone Age humans had much time for social exchange and also sleep.

Since the Stone Age cannot be observed any longer, anthropologists (especially in that time when archaeological evidence was much scarcer) investigate contemporary cultures which are supposed to live social lives that are at least similar to the Palaeolithic. Of course, this assumption is a tricky one.

The African !Kung for example work 6 hours per day, but only during 2,5 days of the week. 15 hours of work per week amount to a daily average of 2 hours and 9 minutes, roughly 795 hours per year.

The African Hadza work on average 4 hours per day and roughly 1484 hours per year. Comparative estimates of cultures on different continents mention averages below 5 hours per day.

Note that housework and care work are excluded from these numbers as they are from modern statistics, and that the variations are potentially as great as in statistics of modern industrial societies. Modern statistics also don’t include time spend on commuting, on average 25 minutes per way.

The decline of free time

One more surprising result: modern capitalism brought an historically high and unsurpassed level of consumption to the global North, but in spite of all our technology, it brought us no high level of free time.

This is normally obscured because official statistics mention average working hours per year. The falling graphs are in part due to a huge increase in the share of people (primarily women) who work part-time.

A German full-timer in 2019 still worked on average 1642 hours, so to speak a quite medieval value. Full-timers who work above the average will come closer to the value of the average self-employed, namely 1902 hours. (At times such a value is mentioned for medieval peasants.) As recently as in the year 2004 self-employed German men worked 2320 hours, on average.

In a global perspective the numbers are higher anyway. Germany is one country with comparatively low levels of working hours. In China and Mexico, for example, the values lie shortly below and shortly above 2200 hours, on average. Many people work even longer.

Only and solely people in the German workforce who work part-time can compete with the Stone Age.

In 2019 they worked on average 770 hours. However, part-timers are usually still not taken to be norm-defining, although their number is increasing. Normally ‘having a career’ requires to work full-time in a so-called ‘normal work week’ of 40 hours, plus overtime, and the level of your pension also depends on it.

Does all of this mean that we have to return to the Stone Age? Certainly not. But the contrast could irritate us and bear some fruits if we take into account contemporary social problems.

What is it that we have to do? Work less!

David Graeber had the ability to confront us with the oddity of our culture in a way that is disarming but does not hurt that much.

In a feature for the BBC he said in July 2020 that we should forsake our addiction to work:

It’s not our pleasures that are destroying the world. It’s our puritanism. (…) If we really want to save the world, we are going to have to stop working so much.

Juliet Schor has investigated these relationships for some time.

According to one interesting comparative estimate, US-Americans work almost 32 8-hour-days more than Western Europeans. This is explained by less vacation, a bigger share of full-timers, and a culture of overtime. In the US working hours even increased since the 1970s according to some estimates.

Here is the punchline: Would Americans adjust their working hours to the European levels, they would consume 20% less energy. If we Europeans would work more, for instance because conservative or “liberal” politicians tell us that we have to fear international competition, their energy use would increase.

According to another estimate, a reduction of working hours by 25% would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10,5% and the ecological footprint of a country by 30,2%.

For us people who have been socialized in a work-society and might not see the abvious it is worth to write the essence down again:

work destroys the planet!

What holds for society as a whole, the connection between working hours and pollution, also holds to some degree on the level of households.

The story is simple. People who have more time can afford slow transport, they have “slower” hobbies, they reduce compensatory consumption as a remuneration for work, and they make more things themselves. I was surprised to learn that a visit at a restaurant costs a third more of energy than eating at home, including the necessary shopping. The latter costs more time.

Philosophical problems and choices

A bitter pill in Schor’s model could be that the second mechanism of sparing resources by reducing working time could come along with a reduction in income.

Then, one question is what is valued more. Another is who can afford it financially within the current income distribution. It is well known that the consumption of high-income-groups is especially ecologically harmful.

More often than is publicly conceded, social problems pose philosophical problems:

  • What is wealth, for individuals, groups or society at large?
  • Do we want more time or more trinket?
  • Is this a question only individuals can and should answers or is this a question for politics?
  • Is „affluence“ defined by free time or by open ended levels of consumption, or some mixture of whatever?

Many more advantages of regular working time have been discussed for a long time, though for the most part among academics. Some of them are the following:

  • Men and fathers, who work predominantly full-time, could invest more time into households and families. Since the 70s women have increased their working time, but men have not significantly reduced theirs.
  • Women could close their gap to full-time and reduce the pension-gap. 46% of German women work part-time, frequently in the newly defined “system-relevant” or “essential” jobs, but only 11% of men. Women receive 53% of the pensions of men.
  • The total volume of work could be distributed and unemployment reduced to some degree.
  • Whereas increases in income above a threshold do not make happier, more free time contributes to well-being. 52% of German women and 38% of men in full-time claim to be exhausted after work. In England the numbers are 55% and 47% and even higher, working hours are too.

Let’s get back to our naïve questions:

Is it really true that we have to work more after every (self-produced) crisis?

Why don’t we allow ourselves more free time?

For Juliet Schor the reduction in working time is today more pressing than ever. Back in the 90s she already made a thought-provoking thought-experiment.

If we change our perspective on work-society by questioning the value of work, then this could also have been our history:

We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or, every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work – with pay. Incredible as it may sound, this is just the simple arithmetic of productivity growth in operation.

Instead, the result of social life has been an increase in consumption, inequality, and waste.

In the meantime, the output of the industrial sector in the US doubled in the same time in which employment halved. Although in rentier capitalism productivity increases have slowed down, they will probably not stop, automation will go on.

What can we learn from those 12k years, if anything, for the next 10?

We certainly could massively reduce working time in the next 10 years if we wanted to. We don’t have to do much any longer, at least not so much, though all the ideologues of almost all the contemporary ideologies tell us otherwise.

Part of the problem is the system, part of the problem are idiotic ideas.

The paradox was adequately described already by Karl Marx: capitalism has to maximize work on the societal level at the same time at which individual capitalists have to minimize it at the level of the corporation to survive in social competition. The result for individuals is, and has always been, that working hours remain high or increase if the work force does not unite to counter the tendencies inherent in this social system and its power relations, which are incapbable of transforming technological innovations and increases in productivity into free time for all – without intervention.

Marshall Sahlins claimed that there were two courses to affluence:

“Wants may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or desiring little.”

Hunter-gatherers were, in this view, affluent because they desired little relative to their productive capacity.

We should have learned long ago that we could desire enough, because we have accumulated fantastic productive powers, at the same time we get detoxicated of the (historically imposed) addiction to work.

David Graeber furthermore argued in his bestseller “Bullshit Jobs” that up to 50% of work is actually redundant. If it would disappear, either nobody would notice or the world would even be a better place.

The lockdowns might be taken to have provided us with a natural experiment that proves this counterintuitive hypothesis. The economy had been shut down (or is again), but there was no loss of necessary resources in the global North (with the exception of what had to do with the pandemic itself, e.g. PPE, because it wasn’t produced at all).

Practical consequence: we could – in principle, although: we most probably won’t – drastically reduce working time over night and then debate how to distribute the remains of work-society in a just way.

If we ask national statistics about the share of “system-relevant” or “essential” jobs, we find that Graeber’s thesis is more than true. You will have a hard time to get anywhere near 50%, at least if Germany is a good indicator of a wider phenomenon.

However, reality in the German lockdown was not as dramatic as the rhetoric of collapse and reconstruction.
Between April and June the total number of hours worked (the volume of work) was reduced by 13.3 billion hours, (only) 10%. If you wish, this is a reduction of overtime on a societal level. The social problem here is the unequal distribution because the reduction was not planned. (Of course, the German reduction might be special again, the lockdown was rather mild.)

Not much has changed about the 8-hour-day for 100 years. What changed is that reality does fit the norm less and less. Some work more, some work less, others don’t work at all.

If we really want to save the world, we have to think about work-society, the other side of consumerism.

If you believe this is all nuts, I cannot do any better than close with an advice David Graeber gave us on our way before he left us:

“… you might do well to think hard about what those realities are that seem to be forcing us as a society to behave in ways that are literally mad.”

Think about it: Is 2020 crazy or this society?

Written in memory of David Graeber (1961-2020)

(c) Daniel Plenge

The picture at the top of the post is licenced under creditive commons. You find it here.


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