Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Living Standards in Britain 1900-2000: Women's Century?

Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Living Standards in Britain 1900-2000: Women's Century?

Article excerpt

Sara Horrell [*]

Two composite measures are calculated to map improvements in living standards over the 20th century: the Dasgupta- Weale index and the Human Development Index. A gendered version of the latter is also considered. Indicators of income, leisure, inequality, wealth, health, education and political rights are included. The indices reveal a century of progress. But progress has been neither continuous nor uniformly shared. Downturns are evident in some of the indicators since 1980, demonstrating that the gains are not immutable and need to be protected. Women's position has improved if the end of the century is compared to its beginning, but there has been little change in women's position relative to men's over the last few decades on the dimensions considered here.


Few people would dispute that the standard of living of the average Briton has improved over the past hundred years. National income per capita has grown from [pounds]44.65 in 1900 to [pounds]252.58 by 1998, in constant prices. Boys born today can expect to reach the age of 75, compared with a life expectancy of only 46 for their predecessors in 1900, maternal mortality has been reduced by a factor of 79, and a university education is no longer the privilege of a small minority. In addition, we have access to a wider range of goods, can purchase more exotic foods, regularly travel to foreign countries, and more of us own our homes. But progress has not been continuous throughout nor uniformly shared.

Two composite measures of living standards are calculated to map the improvements in welfare observed over the 20th century: the Dasgupta-Weale index, which ranks changes in various indicators of welfare, and the Human Development Index, which describes the distance to go to achieve some desirable level of welfare. The gendered version of this index examines differences in male and female attainment and share in general progress (United Nations, 1995). These measures can incorporate a wide range of factors argued to affect well-being and we begin by considering the indicators to be included.

Progress has most often been proxied by growth in real income per capita which captures increases in consumption and command over resources. But other factors which affect welfare and which can be related to the national income approach have received attention, for instance, leisure and inequality (Nordhaus and Tobin, 1972; Beckerman, 1980). Leisure is incorporated by taking explicit account of the hours worked to generate income and the income level can be adjusted for changes in its distribution. In addition, the certainty with which income is received may be important. The unemployment rate and coverage of unemployment insurance can be used as indicators of this certainty. Wealth also enhances access to resources and welfare. The level of real wealth per capita will capture this but will ignore the tendency for wealth to accrue disproportionately to a small minority. Owner occupation of housing, eligibility for state pensions and membership of building societies provide proxies for the distribution of weal th through the various sections of society.

These measures focus on the material aspects of wellbeing. The World Bank has highlighted other factors that affect people's enjoyment of and chances in life, such as health, longevity and education, which has inspired the construction of the Human Development Index (MDI). Based on Sen's (1973) notion of capabilities and opportunities, this measure seeks to incorporate other aspects which contribute to progress in the lives people lead but will not always result from or be highly correlated with increased income. Thus Human Development Reports examine the progress of countries towards a developed state on three fronts: income, health and education. A similar approach is adopted here. Dramatic improvements in life expectancy, infant mortality rates, the incidence of diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox as well as the proportion of deaths occurring through these diseases, and from maternal mortality and childhood diseases have been achieved in Britain over the 20th century. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.