The loss of skill in the Industrial Revolution

From The Growth Economics Blog:

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.

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.

Adjustment to major technological shocks takes a long time…


It's not surprising that real income inequality rate rose from 1500 to 1800.

And real income equality in developing countries is rising right now:

It was also a period of massive population growth as Europe recovered from the waves of the Plague in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Wonder how that chart would look for metal smiths, foundry workers, boiler makers, riveters, etc - but then, someone pouring or hammering iron probably doesn't count as a manual laborer.

> someone pouring or hammering iron probably doesn’t count as a manual laborer
Neither does a farm hand. I guess they work with their feet, so they're not manual laborers, they're pedal laborers. And this passes for serious research!

Another thing occurs to me - how were sailors and their associated professions (sail and cordage makers, for example) counted in this?

Obviously, the massive expansion of Great Britain's global maritime presence is covered by this time frame. It seems at lest doubtful that parish records would have much information on this process. Port, naval and commercial records, on the other hand, would at least provide some insight. And properly loading and unloading a ship requires skill, not only to ensure the ship is not endangered while sailing, but on the mundane level of ensuring that the cargo arrives in the expected condition.

Proper loading of cargo was, and is, directed by officers, not sailors. There were much fewer officers than sailors.

They don't stress that England's population grew from about 4 million in 1550 to 15 million in 1850, and that the share of agricultural laborers (which skill category are they in?) dropped from about 80% to about 20%. So there was no de-skilling and the paper is bullshit. Probably, once the numbers are re-crunched taking these two considerations into account, it will turn out that both the numbers and the proportion of skilled workers in the labor pool actually grew during the period.

The massive (relative) decline in the agricultural workforce is part of the folk-history of English industrialization (and urbanization) - enclosure of the commons, sheep and all that. Seems odd not to comment on it. I also wonder what level of skill they attached to sixteenth century peasants or yeomen.

Doesn't the "deskilling" hypothesis imply a shift in the labor share of income? Has this been observed?

The parish records are Church of England records. What about dissenters? What if dissenters are over-represented in the rising industrial cities and therefore in the new skilled occupations? What about people who don't bother getting married, or getting the children baptised? What if increasing prosperity led to the unskilled feeling that they could afford marriage and baptisms?

This paper is further validation of the well known process of industrialization, Google "Eli Whitney" (a useful starting point, albeit the history of Whitney has element of mythology in it). Over time industrialization makes things simpler for the sake of efficiency (Henry Ford, Frederick Winslow Taylor).

A historian 300 years from now will see this whole process as part of the "rise of the machine" which will make all of us vegetables, discombobulated heads that are just fed information and have all our work done by robots, as in the 1950s sci fiction short stories.

We have witnessed the decline of many skilled jobs in past decades too due to indestrial revolution. No more keypunchers, typists. Many jobs changed in what they do: secretaries, automakers, weavers, spinners, knitters, chauffeurs, sailors. Is that deskilling ?

Capitalism is unsustainable. Market watching and predictive analysis is just about seeing how much more we can exploit while turning a blind eye to the basic truth that capitalism-as-practiced is increasingly the problem - not the solution.

I am unimpressed by the paper's treatment of literacy. They grant that it's a skill that was rising in the period, and then they pooh-pooh it. It's possible literacy was rising mostly for reasons that didn't contribute to the efficiency of economic labor --- religious motives, or social status games, e.g. But even if so, it still seems likely that literacy tends to contribute to productivity. It's hard to tease out of labor market data, because literacy is also a useful signal of other kinds of abilities and attitudes. But common sense and a few anecdotes about working with true illiterates suggest literacy really is directly useful, especially as procedures change to take advantage of it. (Not just full-blown documents like instruction and reference manuals, but little friction-reducers like signs on walls, labels on equipment, and checklists.) I think literacy really ought to be taken seriously in the accounting of skills, or the authors should face a heavier burden of proof in explaining why not.

There's probably an inverse relationship between literacy and "skills". Members of pre-literate societies were capable of performing tasks that are impossible now. For instance, I challenge the most literate reader of this blog, the one with the most extensive vocabulary and the highest educational attainment, to build a functional birchbark canoe, and forget about using any metal tools. Or, how about whipping together a simple dogsled, made of split birch and rawhide. Literacy is an adjunct to technological development that is meant to marginalize rare and hard to acquire skills in favor of simple tasks that any boob can perform. Plumbers today no longer need to make drainage joints with bell and spigot cast iron pipe using oakum and molten lead. They just use clamps or glue together plastic.

I was a dab hand at using oakum when I was young. Since I've long since lost the skill, I am perfectly happy with its becoming redundant.

By the way, there were plenty of metal tools in some eras when most people - or "folks" if you are President O using a pseudonym - were illiterate.

So when do you think you'll be done with the birchbark canoe?

There was never a time when most people could make a birchbark canoe.

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