How new technology affects educational choices: lessons from English apprenticeships after the arrival of steam power

by Alexandra de Pleijt (Utrecht University), Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis (London School of Economics)


Many workers today worry whether robots will do away with their jobs. Most economists argue that the effect of automation is likely to depend on what workers do. Robots may replace some types of manual work, but new jobs will also be created to design, maintain and manage automated production.

A shift towards ‘new jobs’ would mean that different skills will be valued in the future, and many policy experts have argued that secondary and post-secondary education will have to change in response. But if young people and their parents anticipate how automation will affect their job prospects, the choices made among current educational opportunities could shift ahead of any changes in what is offered.

The effects of automation on educational choice will be seen in the future. But past experience can offer some ideas as to whether the arrival of new technology affects these choices, even before the technology is widespread.

This research examines how the arrival of a new production technology affected educational choices in late eighteenth century England. The period between 1760 and 1810 is at the beginning of the largest shift in history from hand- to machine-powered production, through the invention and spread of the steam engine that powered the British Industrial Revolution.

Our research combines detailed evidence on the location and timing of the adoption of steam engines with the records of over 300,000 English apprenticeships from the rolls of the Commissioner of Stamps.

The main finding is that the arrival of steam power changed the willingness of young people to pursue apprenticeships, which for centuries had been the main route to acquiring the skills required for the production of manufactured goods. Counties saw a fall of 40-50% in the share of population entering into textile apprenticeships once a steam engine was present.

Despite the possible association with machine design and maintenance, mechanical apprenticeships also saw a decline of just under 20% following the arrival of steam. Merchant and professional apprentices, who were trading the goods produced by craft or industry, were mostly unaffected.

These findings show that the workforce responded to the emergence of technology that would dramatically change the nature of production and work in the future, but that much of the response was local. Apprenticeships fell first in northern counties where industrial towns and cities with factory-based production had emerged earlier. A similar decline in how workers were trained was not seen in southern and eastern England in the early part of the Industrial Revolution.


From The Conversation: No, the Black Death did not create more jobs for women

by Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford
Published on 8 April 2014

The plague known as the Black Death which tore through 14th century Europe is traditionally held to have had at least one upside. Women, the theory runs, were able to exploit the labour shortages of post-plague England to find themselves in a richer and more stable position than before. However the idea that women of the era were forerunners of the post World War I generation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, as new research shows.

Medievalists have long debated the extent to which women shared in the “golden age” of the English peasantry that followed the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death. The plague killed between 30% and 45% of the population in its first wave 1348-59. Recurrences meant that by the 1370s England’s population had been halved.

The silver lining, for the peasantry at least, was the dramatic increase in workers’ remuneration as landowners struggled to recruit and retain labourers. The results are apparent in a rapid increase in male casual (nominal and real) wages from about 1349.


Some historians have argued that women’s gains were even more marked as they could find employment in hitherto male-dominated jobs, or migrate to towns to work in the growing textile industries and commercial services and so enjoy “economic independence”.

Others however have suggested that whatever the implications of the Black Death for male workers, the sexual division of labour prevented women from seizing the opportunities created by the labour shortage. As one account puts it: “Women tended to work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs … This was true in 1300 and it remained true in 1700”.

The debate has significant implications as optimists have gone further in arguing that women’s improved wages changed demographic behaviour by delaying marriage, promoting celibacy and reducing fertility, with the resulting so-called north-west European Marriage Pattern raising incomes and promoting further growth.



From Immigrant Entrepreneurship – The Business of Migration since 1815


Millions of American immigrants, who worked in business or started new businesses of their own, also used businesses in order to reach America in the first place. Before the mid nineteenth century advent of the telegraph, railroad and steamship, this migration usually relied on the services of multiple businesses and intermediaries in order to carry out long multi-stage journeys across land and ocean. In the modern “global village,” interconnected by widely available fast air travel, key services needed by international migrants are also generally dispersed across multiple businesses, often related mainly to surmounting and adapting to legal restrictions. In between, during late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the business of migration was concentrated mainly on the crossing of the North Atlantic. Mass transatlantic migration then became the core segment of the world’s first major intercontinental travel industry, a business in which large German shipping lines played a leading role. Within a longer term context, this essay emphasizes that middle epoch of commercially-provided physical relocation from Europe to the United States, and also includes a sub-focus on entrepreneurship of German origin.

Read full article here:


From VOX – De-industrialisation, ‘new Speenhamland’ and neo-liberalism

by Jim Tomlinson, Professor of Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow
From VOX – 05 July 2015

In Britain today, a majority of those in poverty live in working, rather than non-working, households. This challenges the long-held notion that paid work offers a route out of poverty. This column argues that structural changes in the labour market have brought about profound changes in the social security system. A failure to acknowledge these underlying changes means that dialogues about the political direction of the British economy can be problematic and potentially misleading.

Read the full article on VOX:

From VOX – British wellbeing 1780-1850: Measuring the impact of industrialisation on wages, health, inequality, and working time

by Daniel Gallardo Albarrán, appeared on 22nd May 2016


From WSJ – The Fall of the Unions Paved the Way for Donald Trump

Working-class whites once had a political home at the union hall; now they’ve found solidarity in a new populist movement

“There are two great material tasks in life,” declared John L. Lewis, the autocratic yet beloved head of the powerful United Mine Workers, to his followers during the 1940 presidential campaign. “The first is to achieve or acquire something of value or something that is desirable…The second task is to prevent some scoundrel from taking it away from you.”

The cheers and loyalty that such sentiments long evoked across the Rust Belt are worth recalling in the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking victory. Pundits across the ideological spectrum are busily repeating the obvious: White working-class men and women vented their frustrations at global elites, well-educated liberals, a condescending media and a capable but sometimes dissembling Democratic candidate in a pantsuit.

You can read the rest of the article on the Wall Street Journal online:





What happened to immigrant earnings during the Great Depression?

by Chris Minns, Economic History Department, LSE


The Great Depression devastated North American labour markets for a decade, with about a quarter of the work force unemployed at the peak of the crisis. It is well known that the headline figure conceals the extent to which the burden of the Depression was shared unequally. In addition to sharp differences in employment patterns between cities and regions, it was less-skilled workers who saw demand for their labour fall more than those able to access white-collar work. Older men who lost their jobs were particularly vulnerable to falling into the trap of long-term unemployment. There is some evidence to suggest that the Depression may have exacerbated ethnic differences in the labour market, with black men in the United States were affected more heavily than their white counterparts. How was the Depression experienced by the foreign-born population who had settled in large numbers in both Canada and the United States up until the early 1920s? A recent research paper by Kris Inwood, Fraser Summerfield, and myself sought to answer this question using statistical evidence drawn from new digital samples of the Canadian Censuses from 1911 to 1931.

There are three reasons we were particularly interested in this topic. First, while some social historians have argued that immigrants suffered greater exposure to labour market discrimination when jobs were rationed in the 1930s, there is surprisingly little published evidence to confirm or contradict this contention. Second, by focusing on the earnings of immigrants over a twenty year period, we wanted to see whether the experience of the Depression had implications for the long-run labour market adjustment of immigrants relative to native-born Canadians. Third, Canada offers an excellent laboratory in which to conduct this research. The Depression experience in Canada was comparable to the United States in terms of unemployment trends in the early 1930s, and the country was a leading destination for European immigrants from the late 19th century. A unique feature of early 20th century Canada was that Census questionnaires asked respondents to report their earnings beginning in 1901. This means that our measure of attainment can reflect changes in pay within occupations and the effects of spell of unemployment on total earnings.

Our analysis of Census earnings yields a striking pattern: immigrants experienced “reverse assimilation” in Canadian labour markets, with the gap in pay between immigrants and the native-born growing between 1921 and 1931. Figures 1 and 2 show predicted earnings for immigrants relative to otherwise identical native-born Canadians for young, recent migrants (Figure 1), and older migrants with longer tenure in Canada (Figure 2). Free migrants had unrestricted access to Canada, and came mainly from the United States and the United Kingdom and Ireland. Preferred and non-preferred migrants hailed mostly from Continental Europe. The figures show that the relative decline of immigrant earnings was strongest among older men, even among those who had lived in Canada for decades when the Depression hit. We also find that the effects are focused almost entirely among immigrants from continental Europe who were not native English speakers, with American and British migrants experiencing no reversal in relative earnings.

Figure 1: Predicted relative immigrant earnings, born 1886, arriving 1911



Figure 2: Predicted relative immigrant earnings, born 1871, arriving 1896


The evidence of reverse assimilation is not a statistical artefact due to selective return migration of European migrants, or selective outmigration of Canadian residents to the United States; international migration flows were much lower in the early 1930s than the late 1920s, despite the government encouraging the return of indigent migrants to their home countries. Nor are the problems of migrants accounted for by a skills mismatch created by the differential shocks of the late 1920s and early 1930s, with immigrants having the misfortune of being concentrated in the jobs that were hit hardest. One factor that does account for a large share in the earnings gap is unemployment; immigrants in the 1931 Census were more likely to have lost time out of work than their native-born counterparts. This suggests that one way in which ethnicity mattered in the Depression was that those who were most obviously foreign were the first to lose their jobs and the last to be rehired. But unemployment does not fully account for reverse assimilation, as non-English speaking immigrants from continental Europe experienced a significant decline in weekly earnings between 1921 and 1931, relative to their native-born counterparts.

Our findings point to a disturbing conclusion: apparently well-integrated immigrants were more vulnerable to the adverse effects of a sustained recession than native-born workers with similar skills.  Whether this pattern has been repeated in immigrant receiving economies during the recent crisis is an important question for future research.







How (much) were British workers paid ? Evidence beyond wage rates

J. Cobden (1953) The White Slaves of England

Since Phelps Brown Hopkins published ‘Seven centuries’ in the mid 1950s economic historians and cliometricians have used ‘day wages’ – day rates for masons, carpenters and bricklayers taken from building accounts – to estimate the earnings of workers of the past. Whilst recent work has shown that these rates were not what the masons, carpenters and bricklayers actually received [1] many historians have been working on the means of earnings of other groups. A wage formation conference at the Institute of Historical Research on 16 September aimed to bring the notion that wages are more multifarious than day rates to the fore. The programme brought research on lead and coal miners, hostmen, keelmen, laundresses, sailors, bankers, spinners, agricultural labourers and clergy to debate, and the features that all these groups had in common in their pay before 1900 was an observation that all who attended shared.

Kicking off the day in opening remarks, Leigh Shaw-Taylor put the conclusions that authors such as Greg Clark, and Robert Allen and others have drawn from long run compilations of builder’s day rates within a theoretical context of structural change, pointing out that the role of real wages and average wages has been confused by cliometricians, and reminding us that Malthus predicted shifts in the wages of the poor, not of the average worker.

In the first presented case of the day Jane Humphries and Ben Schneider (Oxford) overturned the notion, common in recent historiography, that spinners were well paid and part of a high wage economy in England in the 18th century; rather they showed only the most productive spinners in England earned what Arthur Young described, moreover many spinners were employed by parishes at low piece rates under the poor laws. Amy Ridgway (Exeter) presented the only data from agriculture at the conference. Using the records of Kingston Lacy in Dorset she showed that the number of day labourers hired on a casual basis increased throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century, contrary to the established literature. Kathryn Gary (Lund) presented a new wage series for unskilled men in Sweden in the long run. She showed definitively that the wages unskilled men were not enough to support a family.

Four papers presented at the workshop dealt with the earnings of miners or those engaged in the coal industry. Andy Burn (Durham) showed that the keelmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the late 17th and early 18th century had pay that consisted of variable elements. Part was for hauling, another part for loading, and the rates varied according to location and season. Although the men were relatively well-paid when they were at work, the seasonality of the trade challenged living standards, and created a public order problem for the authorities. Tim Barmby (Newcastle) has been researching the Allendale lead miners. There men and mine owners bargained a price per fathom to be mined. To bargain effectively they needed to be able to predict, or have better information about the seams and geology that they were mining. Barmby shows that wage bargains were a means by which the mine owners extracted information from the more knowledgable miners. Unsurprisingly, the system produced unequal gains, with the best teams repeatedly winning the bargains. Guy Solomon (Exeter), who has fully quantitatively analysed Peter Kirby’s 2010 data shows that piece rates in coal mining in Northumberland brought about large variations in wage amongst workers doing the same job. Matthew Pawelski (Lancaster) showed how a Derbyshire free miner of the mid 18th century, John Naylor, used his own rights to common mining land to earn a large amount to take him out of a period of significant indebtedness. The case shows that as well as having his own resources, Naylor took local work with other employers when he could, and highlights the multifarious nature of earning for men of this class, and the role of book credit in such small enterprise.

Richard Blakemore (Reading) has spent the last three years looking at how sailors were paid. He debunked the common myth that sailors were an early modern global proletariat paid poorly wages. Instead he shows that Sailors earnings were, again, highly variable – many mariners made money from trading goods between ports. The form in which sailors were paid varied according to risk. Blakemore showed that the bargaining systems between shipowners and mariners benefited both parties at different times. Laundresses – a vital group never properly examined before – are the subject of Kathryne Crossley’s (Oxford) research. Drawing on the records of Oxford Colleges she shows that their status, and the means by which they were paid shifted over the 17th and 18th centuries. In the earlier period they operated as enterprising sole traders, in the 19th century they were integrated into the discipline of college staff. Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) brought some badly needed research into white collar workers. Bank of England clerks had much in common with sailors – and laundresses – it turns out. The basic salary that the clerks received was at the very lowest end of white-collar earnings in in London. Variation and extra income were earned by the clerks through gratuities, frequently for favours for clients, and trading illegitimately as brokers. Judy Stephenson (Oxford) gave a review approach, centred around the question of trying to work out how representative day wages used in macroeconomics series really are of earners in London across the long eighteenth century. Early research, funded by Cambridge Humanities Grant, indicates that few London workers were paid by the day before 1800. Wouter Marchand (Utrecht) demonstrated that the pay of clergy in early modern Friesland was dependent on the quality of land that church lands produced income from. The clergy are one of those groups that economists love to refer to as sacrificing wages for status. Marchand shows that their wages were not determined by custom. The best paid clergy were in merged or combined parishes on fertile soil.

The commonalities between the cases presented at the workshop was remarkable. These kept coffee breaks and lunch and dinner abuzz with debate, conversation and connections. The most marked was the observation of varying levels of income due to the effects of piece rates, bargaining and variable pay structures. Variation in earnings of people doing the same jobs was a consistent theme throughout the cases presented. Moreover, nearly all the cases showed only small part of income came from basic pay, and auxiliary rates, gratuities, alternate employment and bargains, were used to meet the problems of information asymmetry, seasonality or uncertainty. This was directly related to the materiality of some of the occupations. It was also noted that the agency or bargaining power of workers in a number of sectors was a determinant of their income. A final comment was that that ‘custom’, which dominates a great deal of historical literature, was not mentioned all day as as a determining variable in any of the cases presented.

The conference reinforced the idea held by many participants that wages in the early modern period and nineteenth century were a more complex issue than the use of real wages in long run studies have suggested, but it also showed that the topic of wage formation is ripe for further research. The full proceedings and papers will be published at a later date.

Judy Stephenson.

[1] Stephenson, EcHR, forthcoming.