Was the industrial revolution a product of downward social mobility? That’s the argument of a forthcoming book by the American historian Gregory Clark. His thesis is that as the rich had more children that survived than the poor, the population of England was by 1800 overwhelmingly made up of the descendants of the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages and that as the children of the rich spread throughout society so did the attitudes and values that make people wealthy. As he puts it, “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving”.
Clark posits that this explains why the industrial revolution happened first in England rather than countries which had larger population such as Japan and China but where the rich had fewer children than the poor. Do read this piece on him and the reaction that his work is generating.
One other thing Clark notes, stands out to me. In 1790 the average person in England was barely consuming more calories, 2,322, than a member of a hunter-gatherer society, 2,3000. While the poor were consuming considerably less, a mere 1,508 calories.