Why even the serfs had better work-life balance than you
The serfs may have had it good. According to two very brainy economists, we
should be so lucky as to have been alive and working in the 12th century.
See, it turns out that serfs worked to live, and, frankly, to party.
In a recent chat at the highly literary Hay Festival in Wales, Andrew Simms
and David Boyle, authors of The New Economics: A Bigger Picture and
both directors of the New Economics Foundation think-tank, argued that for a
small farmer in the 12th century to make a sufficient amount to live on for a
year, he would be able to (and did) take 170 days’ holiday – almost half a year!
Sure back then the dentistry was bad and there was that constant worry of
plague, pillage and pestilence, but any poor serf could look forward to loads of
festivals and convivial partying. Boyle said the period looks pretty fine when
you think of it: “Debt-free living; a lot of holidays and parties and a lack of
work ethic; the idea of a ‘just price’ for goods; some aspects of the medieval
guilds and the importance of craftsmanship; and a more spiritual response to
He said, “When you dig up 12th-century skeletons you find they are
taller than or as tall as skeletons at any other part of history other than our
own. That suggests they were getting economics right.”
So what went wrong? By 1564 serfs were committed to work 40 weeks a year and
in 2010 most North American households require two adults to work full-time to
support a home and family.
What went wrong is what we have quite a bit of today – a headlong race for
“stuff”, a hedonic treadmill. What serfs didn’t have and we do is, says Boyle,
“a very healthy skepticism about money and money values.”
Is that Lexus (or dream of it) improving your life or damning you to
Then again, maybe it was the serfs’ party-hardy attitude that did them in.
Worth thinking about though, no?