Living standards primarily refers to the overall
economic well-being of individuals in a country (tutor2u, n.d.). Since the
1800s, the direction of change in standards of living has been the focus of the
extensive debate between the optimists and pessimists as it centres around
Britain’s industrial transformation. The inconclusive nature of the evidence
has encouraged the search for new measures of the standard of living;
supplementing the evidence on real wages, data on heights, literacy and life
expectancy also aid in evaluating the trends in living standards in the early
1800s (Pamuk et al, 2009).
Historians are divided over what happened to wages during the
Industrial Revolution. Despite that, their works are still of great importance.
Engels and Mill
have presented pessimistic views on the living standards. Later, Feinstein
provided a restatement of this. Similarly, Ashton and Hartwell were optimists
and thought there were both winners and losers in the debate of living
standards, but overall, agreed that most conditions improved. Also, two recent
important contributors to the optimistic case are Lindert and Williamson (Koot,
part of the essay focuses on real wages – wages that are adjusted for inflation.
Real wages are said to differ from country to country at different periods. However, most
agree that after 1840, real wages did better. Lindert
and Williamson constructed new indices with broader coverage to argue that
standards of living improved sharply in Britain. From 1780 to 1850, they claim
an increase of 100%. Data was also gathered on wages which were present as
early as 1900 to create wages for adult male occupational groups (Pamuk et al,
2009). This is evidenced in the graph of different occupational classes
(L, 1983) which shows an overall improvement in nominal wages in 1851.
All this drive the believe of household’s material welfare increases significantly
during the early nineteenth century, despite the presence of growing inequality.
In addition, the speed and trend displayed by the optimists were enhanced with
Crafts et al and Botham et al (1987) proving surges in wages. This is said to
be the case due to technological innovation, which led to big increases in
labour productivity and hence higher wages. Others reckon it is because the
cost of living did not increase so quickly, unlike during the early stages of
the Industrial Revolution where there was prolonged stagnation due to rising
costs. (The Economist, n.d.).
the optimist view did not sustain as this was later challenged by Feinstein.
From 1780-1850, he said it increased by less than 40 per cent. The increase in real wages
is not as attractive as some would have figured it to be because workers in the
Western Europe only benefitted marginally from the large advances in
productivity taking place during the Industrial Revolution. With this loss,
real wages are unlikely to rise rapidly. Feinstein
was also backed by Crafts and Harley who said that standards of living improved
slowly in the early decades of industrialization because of the uneven
distribution of the benefits of growth (Pamuk et al, 2009). Furthermore, Feinstein produced an
article comprising pessimistic interpretations of the living standards during
the period of 1770-1880. His argument is based upon the creation of new real
wage and price indices. Besides that, there were
also major revisions to living cost index; the more comprehensive basket of
goods readjusted weight of wheat as it was overweighed and for rent too (Koot,
upon making adjustments for unemployment, the gains were even lower for the
earlier periods of the 19th century. Feinstein’s (1998) contribution
to the debate indicated that prices fell less in the decades after the
Napoleonic wars. As goods were more expensive, it was more costly to maintain
the same level of living standards. Therefore, it paved way for the smaller increase in real wages. Feinstein
concludes with saying real wages improved moderately from 1781 to 1855 and at
some periods, progress was slower than others. “It was only from the late 1850s
that the average British worker enjoyed substantial and sustained advances in real wages”. Therefore, it is seen that
pessimists convey a less impressive growth in living standards. This is further
reinforced with Allen’s (2007) best of both series which strongly supports the
pessimist view of the
Industrial Revolution not generating a rapid increase in standards of living. Another significant implication for this side
of the debate would be that until the 1830s, industrial and overall growth in
Britain was much slower than before (Pamuk, 2009). With the reduction in
growth, it entices firms to cut wages. In this respect, having such a retreat
would weaken the optimist case and hinder immense increase in real wages.
Over the last few decades, income as a measure
of living standards has been much criticized. The main objection was because it
represents an input in the production of well-being. Accordingly, the stature
of children and adults have become the focus of numerous studies. Heights was
used as an indicator of the ‘biological’ quality of life (Voth, 2004). It is a
measure of net nutritional status from birth to age 25. However, height
differences between the classes were astoundingly large, indicating that
children from the lower classes rarely enjoyed adequate nutrition (Voth, 2004).
Aside from that, heights
of males in Europe, England and Netherlands decrease although the economy was
doing fairly well – this pattern has brought about a lot of questions. A paper published by Steckel (1995) said that military recruits from
rural areas (which often had relatively low incomes per capita) were markedly
taller than their urban peers. There are many different explanations for height declines during this
period. Some reckon it is due to the outbreak of diseases in cities, such as
cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid. Others think that the growth of agriculture
may have lagged behind economic growth—the relative price of nutrients
increased at a time when transportation was poor. So, access to food was easier
for people living in rural areas (Komlos, 1998).
While Floud et al argues that heights increased
over the period, Komlos finds evidence of a decline in the same data. He found
a decline of 1.3% in height. Besides that, anthropometric data proves
Cinnirella’s evidence (2008) which suggests declining height trends in England,
up to the early 19th century.
Estimated heights change so much from decade to decade that over the
period as a whole, 95% of all observations lie within an 8cm interval (Voth,
2004). As mentioned above, living in industrial cities meant limited access to
nutritional food but at a higher cost. Therefore, the biological standard of
living doesn’t seem to increase as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
Arguably, no debate in economic history is more
famous than the standard of living debate (Voth,
2004). However, the debate remains far from
resolved. In conclusion, assuming perfect information on the statistics, the
Industrial Revolution generated an increase in living standards until the
1850s. However, this increase was not likely to be rapid due to limited gains
in male wage (originating from rising female unemployment) and revisions of index
series made to reflect a more realistic quality of life (Voth, 2004).
Definitively, that encompasses rapid urbanisation, pollution and unsafe working