The Loss of Skill in the Industrial Revolution

There’s a recent working paper by Alexandra de Pleijt and Jacob Weisdorf that looks at skill composition of the English workforce from 1550 through 1850. They do this by looking at the occupational titles recorded in English parish records over that period, and code each observed worker by the skill associated with their occupation. They use the standardized Dictionary of Occupational Titles to infer the skill level for any given occupation. For example, a wright is a high-skilled manual laborer, a tailor is medium-skilled, while a weaver is a low-skilled manual laborer.

de Pleijt and Weisdorf 2014

The big upshot to their paper is that there was substantial de-skilling over this period, driven mainly by a shift in the composition of manual laborers. In 1550, only about 25% of all manual laborers are unskilled (think ditch-diggers), while 75% are either low- or medium-skilled (weavers or tailors). However, over time there is a distinct growth in the the unskilled as a fraction of manual laborers, reaching 45% by 1850, while the low- and medium-skilled fall to 55% in the same period. You can see in their figure 10 that this shift really starts to take place by 1650, while before the traditional start of the Industrial Revolution.

Looking at more refined measures, de Pleijt and Weisdorf find that the fraction of workers classified as “high-quality workmen” – carpenters, joiners, wrights, turners – rose only from 3.9% to 4.9% of the workforce between 1550 and 1850. These are precisely the kinds of workers that Joel Mokyr claims are the crux of the Industrial Revolution in England. They built, improved, adapted, and micro-innovated all the classic inventions of the IR. While they were only between 4-5% of the workers, and this proportion didn’t expand rapidly, given population growth the absolute numbers of these high-quality workmen went up by a factor of 4 between 1700 and 1850 (from about 200K to 850K).

It’s a really interesting paper, and it’s neat to see how much information you can keep sucking out of these parish records from England. It leaves me with two big questions/ideas. First, does industrialization depend on a concentrated core of skills, rather than a broad distribution of skills? That is, if Mokyr is right about the source of English industrialization, then it’s those extra 650K high-skilled workers that really made all the difference. Industrialization didn’t involve spreading skills all around the (rapidly expanding) population, but in getting together a critical mass of skilled workers. Are we paying too much attention to average human capital levels when we talk about development and growth, and not enough to looking at when/how/if countries achieve that critical mass of skilled workers? Is the overall level of education irrelevant to industrialization?

Second, should we care about de-skilling? In a vacuum, telling someone that the share of unskilled workers in the economy rose from 25 to 40% of all workers would send up red flags. That must be a bad thing, right? Is it? As England added population, much of that new population was unskilled, presumably because there was no longer a demand for certain low- and medium- skilled professions that had been replaced by machines. Could this just mean that the economy was getting more efficient at using the human capital at hand? England didn’t need to waste all that time and effort skilling-up a big mass of workers. They could be used immediately, without much training.

True, real wages didn’t rise between 1550 and 1800 (but from 1800 to 1850 they seem to start taking off, see Clark, 2005). But they also didn’t fall. That is, despite the fact that even before the classic IR the population of England was deskilling, there wasn’t a demonstrable fall in living standards. So doesn’t that imply that England was getting more (output) from less (human capital)? That’s a good thing, right? If England had held the level of human capital constant, then this would have raised real wages per worker. Instead, they chose to lower the amount of human capital while leaving real wages per worker the same. Who’s to say that this is a worse outcome?

If we were talking about innovations that got more output from less energy, then holding output constant while lowering energy consumption would be what everyone hoped to see. Why should human capital be different?

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13 thoughts on “The Loss of Skill in the Industrial Revolution

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  2. I assume that’s a rhetorical question. People being herded into lower status jobs with less required and provided education may represent a trend towards greater economic efficiency under some technological and organizational scenarios but it can’t have enriched those peoples’ lives or their life experience. Are you saying that because today you lead a leisured intellectually stimulating life their multi generational sacrifices were worthwhile? If so I’d call that a bit hard hearted. Generally I find it peculiar that economists focus on the notion of scarcity–suggesting ‘natural’ limitations and barriers to be overcome–while paying very little attention to the large role that all-too-human, very socially determined coercion plays in economic relations, at least as far as we’ve managed to construct them so far. Economic power still comes out of the mouth of a gun all too frequently today and I find it fascinating how easily economists continue to ignore or provide alibis for this fact.

    • William – it is a rhetorical question. The interesting facts, though, are that labor was de-skilling while real wages were staying constant. The de-skilling didn’t lead to dropping living standards. Whether it led to less enriched lives or not is a different question, and not one economics is well-placed to answer. For what it’s worth though, we’re not talking about a situation where people in 1550 were all going to college but by 1850 they barely finished elementary school. We’re talking about new young workers not becoming apprentices to high-skilled occupations.

      Was it “worth it”? I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to compare the welfare of workers in England in the 1800’s to the welfare of people today (including myself). I’m not taking a moral stand on this – I’m making an economic observation.

  3. There’s a difference between human capital and innovations: Human capital consists of a political constituency that must be placated with lip service to amicable public policy. The embodiment of innovation doesn’t require this. It’s inanimate.

    That’s why robots are popular. They placate effortlessly. Another work around is slavery, although its met with much disfavor. But another work around, illegal immigration, embeds a politically docile element into the political economy without an unsavory policy backlash.

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  6. “Whether it led to less enriched lives or not is a different question, and not one economics is well placed to answer.”

    …except that economics is the only discipline that represents our participation in the marketplace. You show in this post what we already suspected, that the generation of product separate from needs less skill. That is in fact a strong component of productivity. However, knowledge use is a strong component of productivity as well. In turn, the product associated directly with the use of our time – particularly services and knowledge work – needs more skill in aggregate, not less. That is the economic challenge.

    • Becky – I’m not sure what you mean by needing more skill in the aggregate. Why is that necessarily the case? Do I need barbers to have college educations?

      I can have a large stock of knowledge built into production without having a lot of knowledge workers. The same way that I can have a lot of cars on the road without needing everyone to know the chemistry of internal combustion or the physics of momentum.

      • By keeping individuals employed, there is a larger market for produced goods. Since there is no more “room” for jobs through normal production residuals, new services markets can be generated through arbitraged skills sets (equal use of coordinated time) in which local education prepares individuals for needed local services. Physicians who don’t want to live and work in less prosperous regions could assist in the training these places would need for locals to create their own services teams, for instance.

        By learning to arbitrage time with one another for new services markets (where they don’t exist for lower income levels), locals would also learn much needed negotiation skills and be less reliant on families for assistance. (The older you get the worse that feels!)

        The arbitrage aspect of equal time also means this is newly created standalone wealth – and work – which does not rely on redistribution or the production residual. What this also means it is monetary activity and policy instead of fiscal policy, in the sense that open market operations could assist, were enough regions to adopt the system.

        Hope this makes sense. I don’t have a college degree but have been working on the ideas for more than a decade.

  7. I think there is a missing element here: Mortality. If mortality was falling during the time frame cited, then how much of the increase in low-skilled labor were workers who never made it to adulthood in earlier times? Perhaps there was a survival cutoff that lowered over time; in 1550, any low-skilled workers over a certain number were superfluous to the economy and not able to survive. This would make the increase in low-skilled workers a positive thing, since it means that more people were able to survive to adulthood and still earn a living.

    I wonder if mortality increased or decreased during the time period in question….

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  9. Their data is missing something. It simply was not the case that less than twenty percent of Englishmen were farmers at the beginning (or end) of this era. I recently read (MacFarland) that an English farmer produced enough food to support 1.5 families in addition to his own (which was substantially higher than the continent).

    The larger trend which was occurring during this time was an increase in agricultural productivity. Fewer farmers were able to support substantially more laborers and non farmers. Thus as population grew sons and daughters of farmers became laborers. What we see are absolute numbers increasing of skilled labor and unskilled labor, with the latter getting the brunt from ranks previously employed in farming.

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