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This piece at the Reuters blog got my attention this morning:

Life for the medieval peasant was certainly no picnic. His life was shadowed by fear of famine, disease and bursts of warfare. His diet and personal hygiene left much to be desired. But despite his reputation as a miserable wretch, you might envy him one thing: his vacations.

Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

As for the modern American worker? After a year on the job, she gets an average of eight vacation days annually.

-- Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you by Lynn Parramore

Not saying I'm looking to trade antibiotics for week-long wedding celebrations, but this should make us think about what we accept as progress.

When workers fought for the eight-hour workday, they weren't trying to get something radical and new, but rather to restore what their ancestors had enjoyed before industrial capitalists and the electric lightbulb came on the scene.
American society is guided by a strong commitment to capitalism and a Puritan work ethic that places moral value on physical work. Leisure is still seen as practically (or literally) sinful. (Just look at all the arguments put forth about "the welfare state" and its effect on "work ethic".) But because we view the present as a natural consequence of continuous social improvements, it's difficult to convince people that toiling away is actually harming us, both personally and as a nation, setting us backwards, not forwards.
Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in
absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance costs
(Rosch, 2001).

More than half of adults report that family responsibilities are a significant source of stress and 55% of employees say that job demands have interfered with responsibilities at home in the past three months. (American Psychological Association, 2009).

--APA Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program Factsheet

There is a lot of evidence that this stress is killing us, too.

Here's a taste of some of the protections that workers around the world enjoy and Americans do not:

163 countries around the world offer guaranteed paid leave to women in connection with childbirth. The U.S. does not.

45 countries ensure that fathers either receive paid paternity leave or have a right to paid parental leave. The United States guarantees fathers neither paid paternity nor paid parental leave.

At least 96 countries around the world in all geographic regions and at all economic levels mandate paid annual leave. The U.S. does not require employers to provide paid annual leave.

139 countries provide paid leave for short- or long- term illnesses,with 117 providing a week or more annually. The U.S. provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the FMLA, which does not cover all workers.

40 countries have government-mandated evening and night wage premiums. The U.S. does not.

At least 98 countries require employers to provide a mandatory day of rest: a period of at least 24 hours off each week. The U.S. does not guarantee workers this weekly break.

-- Family Friendly Policy: Lessons from Europe
There's no denying that many of us (as Westerners) take a lot of things for granted (though access is still far from universal); things that would have been miraculous not long ago. When we're sick, we go to a doctor who can probably prescribe something to make it better, or buy over-the-counter remedies for headaches and fevers at the local drug store. We have access to a variety of healthful foods and vitamins so we no longer have to worry about rickets or scurvy. Our public buildings and most of our homes have air conditioning in the summer and artificial heat in the winter. We are fighting to guarantee equal access to public education, something that was not even a possibility for nearly all of human history. But that doesn't mean we do everything better. Maybe there is still something to be learned from the serf lifestyle.

originally posted at my personal blog:

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Comment Preferences

  •  Shor made a mistake going onto O'Reilly (10+ / 0-)

    I had heard Shor talking about her book the Overworked American when it came out.  She then make the mistake of going onto O'Reilly, which believe me I caught only by chance.  He did not buy her research and basically it seemed to me treated her like she was egghead not in touch with reality.

    She in essence from a particular point of view regarded American workers as diligent and working long hours according to her research.  This is simply anathema to core right wing ideologies.

    But O'Reilly's reaction showed a world view in which American workers are lazy and selfish.  Right  wingers view America as a corrupted society refusing to do hard work.  In a way, they must posit a corrupted labor force to complement their other political views.  For example, drug test the poor and unemployed, or remove safety nets as they only reward sloth.  Or no paid maternity leave as we know women deliberately get pregnant to enjoy the benefits.  

    But this world view goes beyond Puritan beliefs.  These right wing ideas area a critical intellectual structure to defend and support exploitative capitalism.  It is not capitalists who are bad--instead, it is the workers who are bad.

    •  I couldn't help thinking of the following as I (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      read this diary:

      When we're sick, we don't go to the doctor because we can ill afford it.  We purchase dangerous, toxic OTC medicines which, in the long run, contribute to more illnesses.  If we can afford the dr., we fill our prescriptions with deadly substances designed to create more illnesses, perpetuating the cycle and thus enriching Big Pharma.  Our "healthful" foods are not; they are mostly GMO's, or sprayed with chemicals that even mainstream publications like ConsumerReports warn us about.  Scurvy and rickets have been replaced with cancer, acid reflux and fibromyalgia.  Our kids are injected with something we have been led to trust to keep them from measles: instead we have epidemics of autism and ADHD (not caused by said injections, of course).  Our public bldgs and homes emit carcinogenic fumes from the toxic substances used to manufucture everything from the flooring to the ceilings: even the walls are brain-eating mold friendly.  (That, of course, is only if your home was not made with Chinese drywall.  Then you will thank God for the other stuff).  Our public education system is being dismantled and replaced by charter schools, so teachers can be paid much less, we cannot complain about the quality of education and the wealthy get even more wealthy from benefiting even more from our tax dollars than we ever dreamed they had the nerve of demanding openly.  And if Chicago is a glimpse into the future, be ready to arm your kids to the teeth so they can walk through violent neighborhoods to the shrinking public schools.

      We are serfs again, it seems.  And our medieval ancestors will have had it much better off than we will.

      Please save a child's life.

      by kmfmstar on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 06:14:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  yes and no (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Redfire, Calamity Jean

        All of those illnesses have always existed, just by other names.
        But yes, you are correct about all of these problems- that's why I qualified our comforts. We have them, but then again we don't all have them or have all of them. But generally speaking, our lives are longer and our health is better than the average medieval citizen (or even the wealthiest medieval citizen). And as a society we are better educated- our overall literacy rate has gone from almost no one to almost everyone.
        But we have still have a long way to go.

    •  OReilly's amen quarter only agrees (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Calamity Jean

      with him because they themselves are scared. A black man was elected president not once but twice,  young people are rejecting their old fashioned religions, the dreaded GLBTs are rapidly gaining acceptance into mainstream society, working women are no longer putting up with second class status...

      In short, they're finding everything they were raised to believe is proving a lie and they need someone to blame.

      Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.--Sam Rayburn

      by Ice Blue on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 07:35:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've Seen Reports from Hunter-Gatherers Queried (9+ / 0-)

    about settling down like agriculturalists they see beyond their territory. They say no thanks, those people work themselves to death.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 06:13:51 PM PDT

  •  One of the things about being a serf was that you (7+ / 0-)

    were bound to the land, couldn't move about or be forced to do so, unlike our present generation whose hunt for jobs almost inevitably requires many of them to move to another state, and then do it again, and again. The pile of relatives nearby that serfs had, our younger generations don't. There was some ability to escape for a year and a day and never go home again in the serf days, but that ws not necessary something everyone or even most people did or tried to do.

    And the serfs had a form of job which permitted most of them both to feed themselves and do the work for their lord. He needed the workers and therefore had to make sure they survived. Not now.

  •  One reason for the odd difference is that (5+ / 0-)

    medieval society simply did not conceive of "progress", either generally for society or particularly for individuals. One's lot in life was perceived as largely predetermined, and working your ass off to improve was a fool's game -- indeed, there were legal limits to just how much you were allowed to improve it.

    To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

    by UntimelyRippd on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 06:35:04 PM PDT

  •  I'm sure they'd agree they had it better. nt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

    by thestructureguy on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 06:40:11 PM PDT

  •  It depends on what the meaning of 'work' is. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Alexandra Lynch

    Toss in 'liberty' and 'the pursuit of happiness', and one is comparing apples and watermelons.

    One might also note the lower classes in the day contended with not exactly risk-free universal military service requirements,  

    •  But they truly were universal (0+ / 0-)

      The lords and their sons were not exempt - the king could and would call them up too whenever he got into a dick-swinging contest with another king (this went on between England and France for centuries).

      And the lords sometimes got into it with each other on the side - but, again, they were obligated to show up and lead from the front.

      If it's
      Not your body,
      Then it's
      Not your choice
      And it's
      None of your damn business!

      by TheOtherMaven on Mon Sep 02, 2013 at 08:48:06 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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