The Industrial Revolution in World History

By Peter N. Stearns | Go to book overview

4
The Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution was an intensely human experience. Its technological and organizational core had ramifications reaching into almost every facet of society. Specific impacts varied somewhat with each region's industrial revolution. The experiences of women in France, for example, differed somewhat from those in Britain because a larger number of French women stayed in the labor force; by the late nineteenth century about 23 percent of the French labor force was female compared with about 15 percent in Britain. Nevertheless, in broad outline the social impact of industrialization was similar in most Western countries. This impact changed somewhat with time: Initial results did not always persist as the industrial revolution matured, and although these variations proved more substantial than regional differences, the theme of major change applied to both time and place. No society managed to industrialize without massive social dislocations.


Life on the Job

One fundamental transformation involved the work experience. Factory workers sometimes faced an increase in poverty, as wages were kept low and prices of some goods rose. Other workers, as we have seen, won modest benefits from the industrial revolution, and certainly the tendency after the initial decades was for standards of living to improve. Constraints remained very real. The new working class had little margin over subsistence, and various crises such as illness, a recession, or old age had potential to bring extreme misery. Furthermore, reactions to other features of the industrial revolution often were colored by initial suffering. Nevertheless, the exiguous standard of living was not in itself the most important difficulty facing the labor force.

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