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Pre-industrial people worked only three hours a day

Your Money or Your LifeDid you know that before the Industrial Revolution, the average person worked for about two or three hours a day?  Studies from a wide range of pre-industrial civilizations show similar data --- it takes only about fifteen hours a week to provide for all of our basic human needs.  And that's using hand tools.

So why is the average American working a dreary forty hours a week?  I've heard from at least half a dozen readers who say that they'd love to live like Mark and I do, but only once they save up some large sum of money or bring their microbusiness up to a level where it can pay them some other large sum of money per year.  So, even though it's a bit off topic, I want to spend this week's lunchtime series talking about money --- how much do we really need and how can we make it without selling our souls?

Most of the information I'll present is drawn from Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money or Your Life and the loosely affiliated Financial Integrity website.  You can find the same nine step program, complete with worksheets and examples, in both the book and the website.  (Download the worksheets and examples from the website for free here.)  Both are highly recommended!  I'm going to gloss over some aspects of the program that seem old hat to me, so if you like what you read here and want to learn more, I highly recommend you go straight to the source.

This post is part of our Your Money or Your Life lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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I have a hard time believing this claim that "pre-industrial people only worked 3 hours a day". I suppose it depends on what you define as work. For example if work is defined as factory work, office work or such time specifically in the employ of someone else then I only work an hour or two a day, enjoying the rest of my free time outside doing construction, feeding the animals, cutting wood, building our house, teaching our children, gathering food from the land, etc - nothing productive like work though. I know my ancestors worked a lot more like 80 to 100 hours a week as I define work, and as they did.
Comment by Walter Jeffries Mon Feb 15 12:29:14 2010

I know --- our farm takes a lot of work too! (I don't really count it as work, though, because it's something I do by choice and don't make any money at. :-) )

The citation is Stone Age Economics, which you can browse on Google Books here: I didn't actually go back to check the author's research, but it makes sense when you figure that hunting and gathering are much less time-consuming than agriculture.

Even so, if you look at Wikipedia's history of the working day at, you'll see an overall lengthening in the working time since the middle ages. If you scroll up a bit from the spot I linked to, you'll see some other pre-industrial info.

The problem is that modern Americans believe they must live at such a high standard of living that they work massively long hours to get there. If all we wanted was to be able to fill our bellies, we would barely have to work at all!

Comment by anna Mon Feb 15 12:44:19 2010

This is an excellent topic. We read that book about 15+ years ago and it was a real eye-opener. I always suspected that this 40-hour work week was a sham. This is very interesting to me. If the 3-hour pre-industrial work day is true, it is very thought-provoking. I have always asked the question: How much do we really need? We see people who are wealthy but they keep working at many different things. I don't know if it is the money that motivates them or the fact that they would not know what to do with themselves if they didn't. There are people who, after they retire, have to go and get another full-time job. Maybe it makes them feel useful. Maybe they don't like being at home. Maybe they are from a different camp altogether. I am from the same camp as you - it would be nice to have some quality time left on the planet before we keel over - doing what we deem to be important (whether volunteer work, homesteading, reading, etc.) and enjoying our own time.

The concept of work and job may be too different things. I consider the job to be something I am doing for someone else, for pay, whereby I can't just take off and leave if I want to. The work would be things I do every day such as preparing food, shelter, heat, etc. This is mostly enjoyable to me (though some parts I can live without) and not considered work in the sense that the job is. If that makes sense.

I have often wondered when I hear about folks who win a lottery (millions), and when asked about it, they say, "I'm not quitting my job", to which a friend of mine replied, "can you buy a brain with that money?" There is something driving them and I am not sure what it is, only glad I don't have it. :)

Comment by HeatherW Mon Feb 15 14:22:45 2010
I'm going to love this lunchtime series. :-) This is something pretty close to my heart. I suppose the answer is going to be different for everyone. Personally, I like to work on "internet stuff" when I feel passionate and motivated. But when I feel like I just HAVE to be here because I'm "supposed" to be at the office during office hours it starts to become less enjoyable. For me, it all comes down to the old cliche: Work to Live; Don't Live to Work.
Comment by Everett Mon Feb 15 16:18:47 2010

The Wikipedia article you referred to cites the '!Kung' people working 6 hours a day. And that is if you want to live as a hunter-gatherer. That's a lot more than 3-4 hours. While there is good archeological evidence that hunter/gatherers were healthier than early farmers, it was specialization that ultimately allowed us to acquire the technology that built our world as we now know it.

E.g. take a simple example; iron/steel tools. Making iron or steel is quite a time- and energy-consuming undertaking. I once saw a bunch of experimental archeologists working as blacksmiths, and I can tell you that is seriously hard work. They explained the complete process to me; You'll have to have an iron source. E.g. river silt containing iron oxides or iron ore. Then you have to gather wood and make charcoal, or delve coal. Then you have to smelt the iron in a bloomery, and forge it to get the impurities out and form it. If you look at the amount of ore and wood you need to make a single tool, you'll be quite disappointed. See e.g. the Wilipedia article on tamahagene, using about 9 metric tons of iron sand and 11 tons of charcoal for 1 ton of steel!

Now try to imagine a world without steel. Your new storage building would not have a roof and probably fall apart for lack of screws and nails. Heck, even disregarding powertools, woodworking without steel tools (plane, saw, chisel, drill bit) and materials (screws, nails) would be quite a chore!

The work week length isn't the only factor in life quality. Life expectancy and health in the prehistoric period and the middle ages wasn't stellar to put it mildly. To get the improvements we now enjoy in both has required massive resources, i.e. lots of people working full time in other activities than hunting/gathering.

What I've learned from my interest in archeology is that it is quite common to find evidence of hard labor on skeletal remains from the prehistoric through the middle ages (e.g. axed man of Mosfell (pdf), towton mass grave project) up to the modern period (US african burial ground); heavy joint wear, enlarged tendon attachments, worn teeth &c. Those signs only develop after a long time (years) of seriously hard labor. That would seem inconsistent with working only a couple of hours a day.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Feb 15 16:26:12 2010

Heather --- what changes did you make in your life (if any) after reading the book?

I agree completely with you on everything you said --- about not needing so much, about wondering why people who retire go back to work through simple lack of imagination (I could fill every day at least twice with things I just want to do for the fun of it!!!), and with your definition of work versus job. I think that jobs are evil, but work is great. :-)

Everett --- I think that your "internet stuff" is a lot like the parts of my work that I don't call work. :-) I wish that everyone could figure out how to make a living without a job they didn't enjoy.

Comment by anna Mon Feb 15 16:28:19 2010

Roland --- I'm not advocating going back to hunter/gatherer days, but it does seem like there's a much better middle ground than the traditional American work trap. As a European, you probably realize that it's quite possible to have high quality of life while working significantly less than Americans do.

Specialization is great, and you're right that it's made many things possible. But if we don't need so much stuff, we can use our new specialization skills to buy all of the things we really need using the money our specialization brings us in far less than 40 hours per week.

Comment by anna Mon Feb 15 16:33:10 2010

Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I've always wondered why americans put up with relatively poor working conditions? Long hours, low wages, not a lot of vacation days, etc.

Even before universal suffrage was introduced in the Netherlands in 1917 (1919 for women), political parties here started regulating labor to limit excesses like long hours and child labor (the latter was initially banned in 1874), and it became more of an issues atfer every laborer got the vote. It is more or less expected of the government to actively intercede in the labor market and protect citizens from the "race to the bottom".

From a distance it seems that US politicians as a rule care more about the wishes of their corporate sponsors than about those of their citizens.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Feb 15 18:38:06 2010
I have no clue why we put up with it. Apathy? :-) You're completely right about our politicians...
Comment by anna Mon Feb 15 18:56:37 2010
Roland you are correct about our politicians, but we the people are who allow them to do it. They are like shepherds herding really stupid sheep sometimes. Give them a little fear, some religious zeal, and a lot of nationalism and you can pretty much make 51% of the American public vote against their own interests every time.
Comment by Everett Tue Feb 16 11:07:21 2010

Hey sweetie,

So it seems to me, the issue depends on how you define "pre-industrial," which people you're talking about, and how you define "work." As an early-modernist who studies Britain, when I read "pre-industrial" I think of the 4 or 5 centuries before the Industrial Revolution in Europe. In the Medieval and early-modern periods in Europe, people worked more than 2-3 hours a day. Ask any historian. But not all people. And not on all days. Before the Reformation, the calendar was loaded down with feast days on which people celebrated and did not work. And there were a few -- a very few -- people who had the wealth and positions that meant they didn't have to work. If you're talking about pre-historic or pre-agriculutral people (hunters and gatherers, stone age, iron age, etc.), then the term "pre-industrial" is a sort of historically iffy choice. (And I have no idea how much work they did. I only study people who had embraced the written word.) And there's going to be a big difference in any century depending on which geographic region is being discussed. The work patterns arond the Nile -- where a farmer had to take advantage of a flood / drought pattern -- were different than on a tundra someplace where they had to follow the mastadon herds. Or whatever people hunted on the tundra. And as far as the definition of "work" goes: is the writer talking strictly about agricultural labor? Just food production? Is he considering people who worked in shops? (Again, presumably the definition depends on what century he's talking about.) Just an example, but there are thousands of sailors in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries -- pre-industrial Revolution. They might work around the clock when on shipboard, but do no work whatsoever when they were on leave. When the papers were drawn up creating apprentice / master relationships, they said nothing about the number of hours the apprentice was required to work. The apprentice worked as many hours as his master told him to work, which would have been: until all the work was done. The industrial revolution brought along with it reform movements to protect laborers by limiting the length of the work day. Frankly, I'd be suspicious of any book that tried to talk about pre-industrial labor in terms of "hours." The writer is applying a contemporary way of thinking to the past, when that model didn't apply. He's being ahistorical. Doesn't mean his point is bad, just means his history is. There are some historians who argue that it was agriculture (not industry) that caused the fall from grace -- that pre-agricultural people lived in a simple paradise of only gathering what they needed and spent the rest of the time in joyful communal pastimes. And there are other historians who say that's all rot, and either way, they all agree everyone back then died like flies so it's hard to feel too nostalgic for the simple, joyful, communal past. If you want a really good book on daily life in the Medieval world, I'd recommend "The Ties that Bound" by Barbara Hanawalt. It's very readable and she's an excellent historian.

Comment by Heather Tue Feb 16 11:49:09 2010

Thanks for commenting, Heather! I was hoping you would dig me out of this historical hole I've gotten myself into. :-)

It sounds like I made a couple of mistakes. The first was lumping all of the people before the Industrial Revolution together into "pre-industrial." I made that term up, but clearly it already had a meaning (that didn't match my meaning. :-) ) Oops... :-)

The author actually split these groups up, which it sounds like is the right thing to do. It sounds like he agreed with your historian group A who thought that pre-agricultural people spent very little time gathering and the rest having fun.

His examples after agriculture came along are a bit more vague. He does mention how many feast days people had in the Middle Ages. His vagueness is probably an attempt not to be ahistorical by using a modern concept of work on people who didn't think of it that way. Still, if you look at wikipedia (, which, I know, isn't always completely accurate), they list a "laborer" (whatever that is) in the UK working only 1440 hours per year, which would average out to a bit under four hours a day. Of course, I guess the big question is --- is that working off the farm for someone else, with their own farm work added on top, or is that their sum total of what we would now call work?

On the other hand, that same wikipedia entry lists the average worker in Germany as working only 1364 hours per year, which is considerably less than the average worker in the U.S. today. So, clearly, in the modern world, you can live in a first world country and not work 40 hours per week.

Comment by anna Tue Feb 16 12:54:12 2010
Everett's assessment of American politics is, sadly, true. I don't really know how we can change it, though! Americans are so easily swayed by marketing, which is basically what a political campaign is.
Comment by anna Tue Feb 16 12:58:37 2010

Hi Anna,

In answer to your question above, I think the most important element we gleaned from the program (while perhaps not necessarily a change) was an overall awareness of where we were spending our money, the truth about "gazingus pins" and how they eat up your funds, and the real kicker (as you stated in today's post) was the knowledge that we are exchanging our life energy for money. Our time is finite and this exchange often is not worth it or for the $$ amount that you thought it was. Then you find out you are working for half of that, etc.

We took steps to get out of debt (slight by most standards) by moving to an older, smaller house in the country that needed some work and making some sacrifices (longer commute, etc.) to have less expenses. When that was caught up we moved twice as close onto a raw piece of land, lived in a VW while we built a house ourselves.....that kind of thing. We learned to do most things ourselves, while still recognizing our limitations. We had a rule that the lowest income had to be able to support us because many times it was just one income due to many job layoffs when companies sell, outsource, etc. as well as health issues (me). You never know what bumps you might have so it is good to be able to weather them out. Hope this answers the question a bit. :)

Comment by HeatherW Tue Feb 16 20:14:10 2010

HeatherW --- thanks for letting me know what it changed! You're right that the gazingus pins discussion is one of the strongest in the book --- I probably shouldn't have left it out of my review. I guess I did because I overcame my gazingus pin (field guide purchases :-) ) a few years ago, so even though the concept felt very real, it was something I'd already passed by.

It sounds like we're on a very similar wavelength with regards to doing things ourselves, staying out of debt, etc. I'm so glad you're turned into a regular commenter!

Comment by anna Tue Feb 16 20:18:13 2010

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime