Living Standards And The Industrial Revolution Notes
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Supervision 4: Living Standards and the Industrial Revolution British Economic History, Paper 5, Part I Essay: 'Recent evidence confirms that the Industrial Revolution conferred few
benefits on the majority of those who lived through it.' Discuss. The debate about the standards of living in Britain during the Industrial Revolution is one of
the most famous and controversial topics in economic history. One the one hand, the
pessimists argue that the standard of living of the labouring poor deteriorated during the early
industrialisation. On the other hand, the optimists see improvements in the quality of life for
the majority of the people. The discussion concentrates on the time period of ca. 17601850.
Since the 1980s, most new research concerning the standards of living has tended to
support the pessimist position. An important work about real wages supporting the optimists' position was made by Lindert
and Williamson (1983). Real wages can be seen as an important input in the standards of
living, because they determine the level of consumption. Lindert and Williamson looked at
wages paid to a range of male adult employees to get the average wage rate for different
groups of occupation. As they looked to the labour class directly, it also helped to address
the topic of widening inequality. The question whether only a few benefited from the early
Industrial Revolution can be answered if we look at wage developments of workers. Lindert
and Williamson further developed a costofliving index in order to calculate the rise in real
wages. Their result shows that real wage trends are variable until 1820, after which
continuous growth occurs. By 1851, the wage rate for all workers was 155% higher than in
1781, which is a marked rise and was used as evidence by Lindert and Williamson to
postulate that "the debate should be over".
This strong optimistic view was contested by Horrell and Humphries (1992). They considered
the income development at the household level, as this is the variable which determines
consumption for individuals. If there were less working opportunities for women and children,
the rise in disposable income for the family must be less than the rise in male earnings
suggests. Horrell and Humphries used household budget data and included occupations and
paymentsinkind omitted by Lindert and Williamson. This resulted in a downward revision of
the increase in income. The increase of 95% by Lindert and Williamson in male earnings
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