by Doctor Science
I was surprised by the romantic historical ignorance about work in Yves Smith's post on The Rise of Bullshit Jobs. It's annoying, because I agree with Smith (and David Graeber, whom he starts out quoting) that
most people work longer hours than they should and consume too much, and many would benefit from increased free time to spend with family or relaxing.But then he goes and quotes Yasha Levine, talking about
The Invention of Capitalism by economic historian Michael Perelmen:
Yep, despite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?…A romantic vision of the pre-industrial "rural communal lifestyle" is also my biggest criticism of Graeber's Debt, though he romanticizes the forager (hunter-gatherer) communal lifestyle instead.
What shocked me about the above quote is how *wrong* it is as history. I assumed these historians would know that, due to the European marriage pattern (EMP), a very high proportion of the peasant population "left their land" to work for wages during their late teens and early twenties. In pre-industrial England, for instance, about about 60% of 15-24 year-olds worked as servants: unmarried and working for wages away from home. It's called a "marriage pattern" because in Europe, uniquely in the pre-modern world, most women married for the first time in their 20s -- even their late 20s -- not their teens.
Our impression that in the "old days" women married very young is due to the fact that this was true for those at the top of the economic scale, and more true the higher you went. But most people (80-90%) were poor and worked in farming, and these Europeans developed a tradition of having young people, women as well as men, leave home to work for wages as servants for some years. Most servants didn't do household work (or not that exclusively), they worked on farms: as laborers, shepherds, milkmaids, and so on.
It's also called a "marriage pattern" because wage work is tied into the European custom of neolocal residence: a newly-married couple lives with neither the husband's family nor the wife's, but in a new household. "Life-cycle service" was a way for both women and men to accumulate money and resources they could pool in marriage.
In other words, although we tend to think of Shakespeare's 13-year-old Juliet as a typical bride in pre-industrial Europe, Sam and Mary Weller in Dickens' Pickwick Papers were very much the typical case. We meet them when they're both in their late teens or early twenties and working as servants. Even after they've reached an "understanding", they can't marry for two years, until their fortunes improve.
While googling about for this picture, I encountered a review of Pickwick by a conservative writer & blogger. So conservative that she likes the first few chapters of Pickwick better than the parts with Sam. *boggles* She also says, of the 24-year-old Dickens, "I was particularly struck by the young author’s contempt for the law." Wow. Wait till she hits Bleak House.
The EMP, then, meant that early industrialists could hire from a large pool of laborers -- female as well as male -- who had already left home and were looking for wage-earning work. This system had been in existence since the Black Death, at least: it was ideal for getting industrial workers, but was much older than industrialization, or even capitalism as we understand it.
Indeed, in recent years historians have been wondering whether the EMP and life-cycle service[PDF] *caused* the Industrial Revolution, or at least enabled it. For instance, in both Europe and China [PDF] textile weaving was women's work, but in China all such workers were inside their households, which set a limit on how many workers you could gather in one place. Only in Europe were there a large number of young, single women available to work together in textile factories, outside of any family.
As to why young women might want to work in a factory, instead of household (or farm) service, just consider: in a factory, sexual harassment might happen, or not. For maids in a household, sexual harassment was part of normal working conditions. As for farm work, while Yasha Levine calls factory work "shitty and dangerous", farm work is *literally* shitty, and even today is still quite dangerous. Humans in general really don't like farm labor, and will usually jump at the chance to do something else.
As to why Europe developed the EMP, historians are still fighting that one out -- though I shall doubtless talk about it at length (the only length I write) at some other time. However, although I'm not surprised when even well-read non-historians haven't heard of it, I *am* taken aback when people who call themselves professional historians don't know this.
I have a couple of posts in progress about work, in honor of Labor Day. This is the first one.