Demographic dynamics and industrialisation


Nynne Schrøder @nynnes


More than 220 years ago, an English reverend published a book that will forever change the study of demographic dynamics and their interaction with society’s development. It was Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus’ study led Economics, and later on Economic History to adopt a fully new perspective which intertwined geography, demography and the study of the broad economy. If there was a period in history when population played a crucial role as a factor of development (or its deterrent in some cases), it was in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, with special relevance for Britain. From the eighteenth century onwards, there were dramatic changes in population growth and life expectancy increased to levels never seen before, being both causes driven by two central factors: variations in mortality and fertility. Since the naissance of the eighteenth century, population grew until reaching a maximum rate of 1.36% per year, which remained stable and fairly constant from 1791 up to the 1830s. Looking for more impressive figures, we can observe how, later on, from 1820 to 1900, British population rose 166%. This was an impressive demographic expansion for the time, especially if we compare it to demographic trends in other European nations at the time.


Historians as Anthony Wrigley (1998) have studied these phenomena deeply, reaching a conclusion that later on seemed controversial to many of their colleagues and which has generated a prolonged academic debate up to our days. Their main assert was to present the increase fertility in the two centuries prior to the British Industrial Revolution as the main causal factor for the expansion of population, having important economic effects over growth and development. Many theories have been discussed in relation to the close causality between demographics and economics and viceversa, as that of technology-led development, which explains how improvements in technology led to the Industrial Revolution, and that this was what caused associated rise in the standard of living and the contraction of mortality (Khan, 2008). Other theories, as that of Wrigley (2004), Laslett (1985), Foreman-Peck and Zhou (2018) or Bateman (2019) show how demographic transition preceded economic development and how this new demographic trend were a direct cause of the improvements in living standards, argued by some to be one of the multiple factors leading to the Industrial Revolution. On what authors disagree the most is on the causes of the already mentioned population growth and, overall, in what way this population dynamics were related to economic growth and socioeconomic development.


Throughout this essay I will analyse how authors as Wrigley (1998, 2004) think that dramatic rises in nuptiality and a reduction of stillbirth rates were some of the main causes of population growth in the eighteenth century, leading to Ricardian increases in productivity and Smithian growth through the expansion of markets and variations in the occupational structure. Later on, we will see how other historians Bateman (2019) present women’s freedom, relative independence and agency in north-western European countries -especially in Britain- were the main cause for eighteenth century demographic dynamics and the subsequent economic development, promoted by women’s relative freedom, independence and household’s economic autonomy into the European Marriage Pattern scheme. Lastly, I will analyse Foreman-Peck and Zhou’s (2018) work on how the European Marriage Pattern led to late marriage in the eighteenth century, producing certain important demographic effects which, according to these authors were a main cause of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. However, not all historians agree with them, and for this reason Edwards and Ogilvie’s (2019) response to Foreman-peck and Zhou’s work will also be described and put forward.


In first place, Wrigley (2004), in British population during the “long” eighteenth century, 1680-1840, presents the idea of how even population growth being impressive compared to previous standards in the long eighteenth century, population growth in the early modern period didn’t exceed the number expected from its proportionate share of land surface of western Europe, in relation to England’s size. By 1860, population had expanded by more than 60% if we compare it with 180 years earlier, mainly because in the seventeenth century British population was almost static in terms of demographic dynamics, as fertility and mortality were in balance. Even if we take into account the impact of the Black Death in population trends from previous centuries, Wrigley (2004) shows that even its impact being massive and widespread, by the end of the sixteenth almost all of Europe had more than recovered up to its medieval population peaks, with the exception of Britain, which failed to recover its fourteenth century population up to the long eighteenth century. For calculations on population trends, Wrigley (2004) considers the IGR to be a truer measure of the rate of variation, as it measures the rate at which a population would rise or fall, given the persistence of fertility and mortality trends over a large enough time period, to ensure that any transient features related to the initial age structure would disappear from the measurements. In terms of IGR, the level attained in England towards the end of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, was the most incredible one in the protoindustrial world, according to Wrigley (2004), with the exception of those nations which possessed abundant supplies of fertile land, which they could easily exploit in case of a demographic boom, as was the case of North America. These significant rising populations would have normally led to economic misery, according to Malthusian theory, as was the case with all the organic economies at the time, which suffered from severe material constraints upon their productive capacity. Wrigley (2004) shows how productivity gains which led to expansions of the productive capacity took place in parallel to the described increases in population, being a remarkable phenomenon in England, where living standards rose notoriously throughout the long eighteenth century. However, Wrigley (2004) has admitted that there was no lasting consensus over the question related to the relative importance of changes in mortality and fertility in relation to the population growth registered during the long eighteenth century, although the dominant view supports that falling mortality made for the majority of the increase in population, at least until new discoveries on fertility trends in the 1950s. While  increased by nine years from the mid of the eighteenth century up to the beginning of the nineteenth century (1750-1820), it is clear from the decrease in stillbirth rates and from the Gross Reproduction Rate (GRR), that fertility had a high relative importance in engendering accelerated population growth. According to Wrigley’s (2004) data, fertility accounted for nearly 64% of the increase in IGR during the long eighteenth century period.


For the study of fertility changes and the rise in marital fertility, Wrigley published a whole investigation about this theme in 1998, titled Explaining the rise in marital fertility in England in the “long” eighteenth century. In this paper, Wrigley (1998) argues how while changes in breastfeeding practices could attract initial attention as an explanation for the rise in fertility, a satisfactory explanation may be found in the changing incidence of stillbirths throughout the long eighteenth century, while for mortality rates, virulence of locally prevalent diseases at the time could be the best proximate determinant of the level and trend of mortality, along with other factors as childbed practices and delivery skills in relation to reductions in infant death, for which the mother’s health and nutritional status also played a crucial role (Wrigley, 1998). Following this line of argumentation, Wrigley (1998) asserts that the rise in fertility occurring during the “long” eighteenth century and the change to be expected from the reduced incidence of stillbirths were of similar orders of magnitude.

Analysing marital fertility, Wrigley (1998) finds that even though not being a directly demonstrable fact, it seems that in the course of the long eighteenth century contractions of the stillbirth rate caused shorter mean intervals between births and thus led to an increase in marital fertility. Wrigley (1998) argues that associated to this it’s also important to analyse perinatal mortality trends, which he closely relates to mean birthweight, and this to maternal net nutrition. The crucial point here is that maternal net nutrition would be closely related to economic conditions, which would convert them in a determinant component of the accelerating population growth throughout the long eighteenth century, relating part of the increase in population to improving economic circumstances. Furthermore, the author insists on the idea that the age structure of a population is determined in large part by its fertility, which is why there was marked variation in the dependency ratio throughout the eighteenth century. Wrigley (2004) develops the idea of how ceteris paribus, such a marked increase in the dependency ratio must cause living standards to be severely reduced, if there’s no other exogenous factor compensating for this effect.


In relation to marriage patterns and fertility related to it, Wrigley (2004) asserts that marriage in early modern England was strongly influenced by economic circumstance as well as by physiological maturation, having changes in the mean age at marriage an equally influential effect in altering fertility levels. According to the author, the combined effect of changes in stillbirth rates and the fall in the mean age of marriage for women could have contributed to increasing fertility by 27% or 28%. The data presented by Wrigley show a clear relationship between secular economic and nuptiality trends, as in organic economies there was normally a strong relationship between the fortunes of harvest and fluctuations in the marriage rate, as the first had a large impact on the economic wellbeing of a community. Wrigley (2004) doesn’t find the same clear link between economic circumstances and mortality rates, which leads him to assert that Malthus’s preventive check was much more influential that the positive check in early modern England.


Wrigley (2004) says that that the bulk of growth and change during the long eighteenth century and prior to the industrial revolution, was mostly “Smithian” growth, causing profound changes in many aspects of economic life in England, as it has previously occurred in countries as the Netherlands, with two crucial changes as were those related to the occupational structure and those of the urban share in the total population. England alone accounted for more than 57% of the net gain in urban population in Western Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century, according to Wrigley, reaching 70% in the second half. However, Wrigley (2004) signals that the most important transformation of the English economy in the long eighteenth century was that related to agricultural productivity between Elizabeth’s reign and the beginning of Victoria’s, with striking increases in output per acre, achieving a degree of aggregate economic growth unrivalled anywhere in Europe (Wrigley, 2004). This growth was also a consequence of the successful exploitation of the possibilities of an advanced organic economy  and not so much to the opportunities brought forward by the transition to a new mineral-based energy economy, according to Wrigley (2004).


Other authors, as is the case with Peter Laslett (1985), argue that even not being fully convinced of the Aristotelian mechanical model of the family as centre and building block of society, recognize and analyse its importance in the socialization process making its form and structure a determinant of demographic and socioeconomic development. Laslett (1985) studies the uniqueness of the European familial system of production and reproduction through three important variables. Firstly, he puts forward the “procreative activity in relation to resources”, which shows how the European familial system ensured that procreative activity only took place between spouses who were required to create and maintain their own households, relating closely the European populations of the time to their economic environment and capabilities. Later on, Laslett (1985) builds on the work of Wrigley and Schofield (1981) to assert that England and northern European countries, as the Low Countries do not appear to have been areas of high-pressure demographics, which were more characteristic of agrarian peasant societies. According to Laslett (1985) “the European familial/procreative system ensured that at all times because of late marriage and high proportions of the non-marrying there was fertility unused, fertility which could be brought into operation as vicissitudes demanded.” Secondly, Laslett (1985) analyses certain exclusive features of the European familial system which were conducive to economic progress and innovation, being at the same time the bases of marriage and procreation. According to the author, the European familial system promoted the spirit of hoarding and was conducive to capitalism, while sanctioning personal exploitation up to a degree. This system promoted economic independence of young marriages along with high levels of geographical mobility amongst young people. On the other hand, in other regions as in Asia and Africa, according to Laslett (1985), procreation was not so restricted to economic conditions, as the married might remain in the households of their parents after marriage, so they weren’t in need to create and economically sustain households of their own, which is a crucial difference with the European familial system. Finally, Laslett (1985) establishes the relationship between family and collectivity in Europe as the third essential characteristic of the European familial system. For the author, the English Poor Law was the most obvious of the European institutions channelling resources to those who needed them the most and helping suffering families.


On the other hand, other authors, as Bateman (2019) provide an alternative interpretation of the relationship between the European familial system and economic development throughout the long eighteenth century. Bateman (2019) centres her argument in how women’s freedom fostered sustained economic development at the time. She argues that the early emergence of markets in Britain provided women with economic opportunities that they hadn’t have before, which although being far from perfect, allowed them to escape strictly traditional familial models and the ruling of their fathers. This was a striking difference with other European countries at the time, as Italy, where teenage girls were forced into marriage by their parents. Bateman (2019) analyses deeply how the way in which markets offered women greater freedom supported prosperity in four different ways. Firstly, in relation to population dynamics, fertility and wages, Bateman (2019) argues that women’s freedom helped support a high-wage economy, especially if we take into account that, at the time, there didn’t exist reliable birth control methods. She argues that in a nuclear family system, in opposition to more traditional ones, fertility was highly responsive to economic conditions, which resulted in a much less harsh population regime, enabling the economy to support a higher standard of living. This familial and economic system, present at nations like Britain during the eighteenth century, according to Bateman (2019), made women free to decide for themselves the conditions of their marriage and at what age to marry, as they didn’t have to rely on their parents after marriage, as they created and maintained their own households. Secondly, Bateman (2019) associates women’s greater freedom and the development of more consensual nuclear families with greater investment and skill development, as smaller families and increases in investment encouraged the development of private capital markets, providing greater demand for government bonds and supporting the ability of the state to borrow and invest, apart from young people marrying later having more time to invest in acquiring skills, such as through apprenticeships, which fostered development (Bateman, 2019). Thirdly, Bateman (2019) shows how women’s freedoms fostered the capitalist spirit and consequent economic development. According to the author, Protestantism encouraged a culture of entrepreneurship, hard work and greater savings and investment in countries like Britain, in contrast to Mediterranean catholic countries as Spain or Italy. The capitalist spirit was a response to the nuclear family model as opposed to other more patriarchal systems which suppressed women’s freedoms and were predominant in many other parts of the world (Bateman, 2019). Finally, Bateman (2019) presents a fourth way through which women’s freedoms in the eighteenth century fostered economic development. With nuclear families, people were in need to interact and work with non-family members, which led to successful democratic institutions taking root sooner in north-western Europe, as this region of Europe offered women a greater degree of agency and equality with women’s freedom being essential as of today if we want to preserve democratic states opposed to authoritarian regimes (Bateman, 2019).


Finally, in recent decades an interesting debate has developed between academics as Foreman-Peck and Zhou (2018) versus others as Edwards and Ogilvie (2019) around the European Marriage Pattern (EMP) and its particular effects on demographics and economic development. Foreman-Peck and Zhou (2018) argue that increases in life expectancy and reductions in infant mortality reduced the number of births necessary to achieve a certain family size, which also led to a higher age of females at marriage, not only constraining population growth, but also providing greater opportunities for female informal learning, being a significant contributor to the intergenerational transmission and accumulation of human capital, as the family was the principal institution for socializing future workers. Foreman-Peck and Zhou (2018) show how the gradual rise of human capital and its positive effects on productivity brought the British Industrial Revolution, for which the contribution of the EMP was essential as it fostered capital accumulation and consequently led to strong real wage increases in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. On the other hand, Edwards and Ogilvie (2019) argue that Foreman-Peck and Zhou’s argument (2018) can’t be sustained, as they don´t make a clear comparison with other European economies where marriage age was also high during the eighteenth century but which its period of industrialisation came much later on in time. However, Edwards and Ogilvie (2019) argue that other influences on English industrialisation should be considered, as it can’t be claimed that late marriage age was a major contributor to English industrialisation without analysing other possible contributing factors, which could have had greater relevance as causes of Britain’s industrialisation.


In conclusion, through this essay we have been able to observe how British demographic dynamics fostered economic development in different ways. At the same time, these economic developments were the basis on which the Industrial Revolution arose, with several analysed authors presenting demographic dynamics in the long eighteenth century as one of the central causes of the Industrial Revolution. However, this trend can’t be extrapolated to every other nation at the time, as it was overall in north-western Europe where Malthusian predictions were proven wrong, and population grew in parallel to the economy, thanks in great part to the European Marriage Pattern, which provided young married households with greater freedom and demanded from them more economic responsibility, fostering capitalist dynamics and socioeconomic development.




  • Laslett, P. (1985) ‘The European Family and Early Industrialization’ in Baechler, J., Hall, J. and Mann, M. (ed.) Europe and the Rise of Capitalism, Oxford, pp.234-241

  • Wrigley, E.A. (1998), “Explaining the rise in marital fertility in England in the ‘long’ eighteenth century”, Economic History Review, 51, pp.435-64

  • Wrigley, E.A. (2004) ‘British population in the long eighteenth century’ in R. Floud and P. Johnson (eds) Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, pp. 57-95

  • Bateman, V. (2019), The Sex Factor: how women made the West rich, Polity Books

  • Foreman-Peck and Zhou (2018), “Late marriage as a contributor to the industrial revolution in England”, Economic History Review, 71(4), pp.1073-1099

  • Edwards & Ogilvie (2019), “What can we learn from a race with one runner? A comment on Foreman‐ Peck and Zhou, ‘Late marriage as a contributor to the industrial revolution in England’”, Economic History Review,72(4)

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