How Hard Did Old-Timers Work?
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How hard did people with really good office jobs work before, say, World War One?

This is a complementary question to one that used to take up a lot of space in the brains of people a half century ago: How many hours per week did factory workers with bad jobs work in the Dark Satanic Mills of the early Industrial Revolution? In 1819, Robert Peel got through the British Parliament a law forbidding 9-year-olds to work more than twelve hours per day, but it’s likely that limitation was widely ignored.

My impression from reading 19th century novels and biographies is that the comfortably salaried often did things like take the summer off. In contrast, I never heard the word “summer” used as a verb—“Where did you summer?”—until I was about 22.

On the other hand, novels tend to be biased toward characters who have enough time off to converse and flirt, so it’s hard to say. For example, most of the salaried characters in Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair are army officers or British East India company bureaucrats and they usually show up when they get a year or two of leave.

Still, consider a highly successful peacetime British Prime Minister, the indolent H.H. Asquith. This Liberal P.M. was finally forced out in 1916 at the height of the Great War in favor of the energetic Lloyd George. But he had had an eight-year run from 1908-1916 in what was then likely the world’s top job despite, as far as I can tell, working maybe half as many hours per year as the typical 9 to 5er.

Churchill talks about taking an 8-week summer cruise of the Mediterranean with Asquith around 1913 (a fraught year) and Asquith making it his policy to do no work at all for the two months. (Churchill, as head of the Royal Navy, would get up early and do two hours of work in secret before his boss arose.)

Granted, Asquith was notorious for his laziness (and was extremely productive when he was working), but, still, standards must have been different then for him to have risen so far.

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