Looking Back Before Looking Forward

By Randall Margo, PhD
Board Director and Commentator, G.L.O.B,A.L. Justice

Contemplating potential societal changes the current technological revolution might create, it’s helpful to illuminate how dramatically the industrial revolution disrupted western society and culture. Consider the following:

Prior to the mid-1700s the family constituted the basic economic structure of society for Northern Europeans and American Colonialists. Families consisted mostly of a married couple, their children and oftentimes a hired teenage servant working for room, board and wages. Nearly all persons lived in rural areas and farming was of paramount importance as malnutrition and starvation were constant threats. A combination of disease and insufficient food resulted in an estimated 30 percent mortality rate for infants thru age fifteen. Independent living was nearly impossible to achieve for ordinary people due to the laborious nature of farming and other economic occupations, forcing nearly everyone to live within the confines of a household. Food costs represented 70-80 percent of household income for most families, leaving little if any discretionary income.

Along with farming, families often made their own clothes, farm tools, and even houses. Extra money was earned through these cottage industries, so named because the work was generally done inside the home. Most men either had a trade in addition to their farming work, or worked as a migrant farmer assisting others in harvesting, fishing, or other occupations where money could be earned. Children and adolescents were viewed as young adults with their economic value viewed as essential for economic survival. They worked as contributing members of the household, starting as young as six or seven, and continued to work until their labor value outside the home could exceed that from within. Frequently, this occurred by 12 or 13, whereby they then worked as hired servants for other households receiving room, board along with limited wages. This servitude typically lasted eight to ten years, allowing them to learn a trade and eventually amass enough savings to marry and form their own households. For young women this was particularly important as dowries substituted for money and land given primarily to men under existing inheritance laws at the time. Driven by economic necessity, most marriages were arranged without consideration of compatibility. Women often had six to ten pregnancies due to the high infancy mortality rate along with childhood deaths. Only about half of those born lived to adulthood.

Given these harsh living conditions, certain cultural norms prevailed for centuries. For example, if a woman became pregnant prior to marriage, considerable public pressure was placed on the man to marry, as otherwise, both the woman and child would become destitute. Children were seen as part of the household economy from an early age. Moreover, the emotional attachment to children was much less because of the aforementioned high mortality rate. Meanwhile, with the exception of the oldest living son, who generally was trained to learn his father’s craft or skills, and solely able to obtain any inheritance of money or land, other children including nearly all women were forced to rely on themselves and whomever they would marry for their ability to subsist within this environment. Self-reliance was critical for survival.

All of this changed with the advent of the industrial revolution. Beginning with refinements to the steam engine, machines enabled workers to exponentially increase production, of textiles, iron and steel while simultaneously reducing the costs of these items. The transportation industry immensely benefitted from steam-powered machines enabling ships and newly created railroads to move people and products much more efficiently. Concurrently, innovations in agriculture, such as crop rotation, seeding improvements and machinery substantially increased food production without a commensurate enlargement of labor. As a result, the population increased and workers previously required for farming were freed up to pursue more remunerative labor in factories, facilitated by easier means of traveling to the urban areas where factories were located. Engine driven ships and railways also served to significantly reduce the time, effort and costs associated with moving raw materials to the factories from distant lands, thereby enhancing the economics of these new production facilities.

From a cultural standpoint, the industrial revolution upended the family household as the primary economic unit of society. But, it did much more than that. It separated labor and ownership from the vast majority of people, who became employees rather than individual farmers and tradesmen. Self-reliance was replaced by employer created employment. Moreover, the pace and the nature of work changed. No longer was their time controlled based on their individual pursuits; instead, factory owners determined their work-time, place and working conditions. And, those tradeoffs were harsh indeed. Working hours lasted from 10-14 hours per day, six days a week. In steel mills, temperatures could reach 130 degrees. The machinery was also sometimes risky to operate or maintain, and industrial accidents were frequent and without legal recourse. Along with industrialization came the specialization of work. Work tasks became specialized and repetitive. The pride and resourcefulness of making something from scratch was diminished and eventually, the skills passed on for generations were lost by the vast majority.

However, while there were cultural drawbacks to the industrial revolution, progress occurred in other facets of life. As women moved to urban areas the economics of family units shifted as well. Marriage became a matter of choice rather than an arrangement, as young men and women released themselves from the communal, economic and familial ties of agrarian life. The dowry system ebbed as land no longer served as the primary source of economic stability for urbanites. Factory work often ended for women after childbirth, allowing more time for motherhood. And while children often obtained factory work at a young age, they no longer left their families to do so. Family ties between children and parents became more cohesive and lasted much longer. Furthermore, business owners pushed forward compulsory education laws so that children had the basic skills to read, write and perform basic math. Additionally, schools stressed obedience and discipline, which were highly valued attributes for factory owners. Urbanization also reduced the need for high birth rates required for laborious agricultural production. Accordingly, birth rates began a decline that continues into the present.

Concurrent with industrial progress was medical advancement. Historical diseases, such as smallpox, typhoid, cholera, and typhus, which were exacerbated by the filth and unsanitary conditions of urban living during the industrial revolution’s initial period, provided an impetus for medical discovery. Medical breakthroughs by Pasture, Jenner, Lister and others spectacularly curtailed these deadly diseases.

These medical developments coincided with scientific inventions including electricity, which brought forth a communications transformation, first with the telegraph and later the telephone. The theory of evolution led to a sociological construct based on the “survival of the fittest” model and more profound questioning of the existence of God and theological teachings. Scientific progress came to be seen as a panacea for mankind, with respect to the quality and capacity of life itself.

Government regulation and assistance were also byproducts of the industrial revolution. Governments were forced to confront unpredictable economic fluctuations of the industrial economy by creating poor houses and other mechanisms to house, feed and clothe those unable to support themselves. Public works were required to address water and sewer problems worsened by the influx of people and factories to the cities. Orphanages were established to care for the children of deceased parents. Government began to replace services formerly performed by families, because the household no longer served as the primary economic unit in society.

From this backdrop begins an exploration into the future our technological revolution might bring forth; how we might change the way we live, individually and as a culture. In essence, can we imagine our destiny, can we determine it, and if so, will we look forward with glee or trepidation to its outcome.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.