THE GOLDEN AGE OF LABOUR: New evidence of the dramatic improvement in British workers’ living standards, 1650-1850

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Date:
30 Mar 2016

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The period between 1650 and 1850 was the ‘golden age of labour’ in Britain, according to research by Professors Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge. But although this was a golden age, because workers earned more per year than ever before in the history of labour, riches were largely achieved by one main means: hard work.

Their study estimates the length of the historical working year across 600 years of English history – from 1260 to 1860. The analysis shows that the post-Black Death fifteenth century, which many historians consider a golden age for workers’ real wages, was not so golden after all – or at least not in a material sense, because workers put in fewer days of labour than has been originally thought.

The researchers also find that the period between 1400 and 1800 saw an ‘industrious revolution’, with the historical working year continuously increasing from around 100 days in the fifteenth century to well over 300 in the nineteenth century. This meant that in contrast to previous beliefs that real wages stagnated between 1650 and 1850, a worker of the mid-nineteenth century was able to earn three times more than could a worker of the mid-seventeenth century.

Trends in historical wages and prices help scholars understand how life and living standards evolved in the past. When English scholars first build a 600-year long series of real wages, in the 1950s, it became clear that a number of crucial events, such as the fourteenth-century Black Death and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries strongly shaped the material situation of ordinary people.

The Black Death, which killed one third of England’s population, substantially reduced the labour force, causing wages to rise. At the same time, the demand for food and other items collapsed, causing prices to fall. Rising wages and falling prices meant that a fifteenth-century worker was three times richer than a thirteenth-century worker and enjoyed what is now called the ‘golden age of labour’. The real wage of a mid-fifteenth-century worker was so phenomenal that it was not reached again until the late nineteenth-century… or at least, this is what scholars have long thought.

But the new research shows that previous real wage estimates were misguided about how long and hard workers laboured in the golden age. Assumptions about working time are linked to our understanding of labour market in the past.

Historical workers faced two options. Either they pieced together a living from daily payments achieved by going from job to job; or they committed their services to a single employer all year round. Assuming some mobility between these two sectors of employment, in equilibrium the days worked per year has to equal the annual wage divided by the day wage.

By building a long-run series of payments made to workers employed by the year and dividing these payments by daily rates, Professors Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf are able to estimate the length of the historical working year across 600 years of English history, from 1260 to 1860. Their study shows that the fifteenth-century golden age was not so golden after all, or at least not in a material sense, because workers put in fewer days of labour than has been originally thought.

Humphries and Weisdorf’s study estimates that a fifteenth-century labourer worked as little as 100 days per year, or much less than the 250 days conventionally assumed. The researchers find that Post-Black Death workers did earn more then their pre-Black Death counterparts despite their modest labour input. But they earned less than twice as much, and not three times more, as previously thought.

More crucially, the study shows that the period between 1400 and 1800 did indeed see an ‘industrious revolution’, with the historical working year continuously increasing from around 100 days in the fifteenth century to well over 300 in the nineteenth century. In contrast to previous beliefs that real wages stagnated between c. 1650 and 1850, this means that the Industrial Revolution actually improved workers’ living standards dramatically in material terms, though of course this takes no account of the work free time sacrificed to increasing industriousness.

Indeed, a worker of the mid-nineteenth century was able to earn three times more than could a worker of the mid-seventeenth century. In other words, the two centuries between 1650 and 1850 were the real ‘golden age of labour’. But although this was a golden age, because workers earned more per year than ever before in the history of labour, riches were largely achieved by one main means: hard work.

ENDS

A new road to riches

Jane Humphries (Oxford): jane.humphries@history.ox.ac.uk

Jacob Weisdorf (University of Southern Denmark): jacobw@sam.sdu.dk

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