I ‘ve been reading Robert Gordon’s interesting book concerning economic growth and its drivers during the last 150 years. Gordon’s main thesis is that not all inventions and technological advances are created equal or have the same impact. The major technological breakthroughs which had a significant effect on productivity (and thus on economic growth) took place mostly more than a century ago and involved creating the networks we still use. Networks of water, sewer, electricity, roads, telecommunication, transport. Networks which were introduced only once, had a strong effect on growth for decades and are now present without having any more major impact on productivity.

One can agree or disagree with his (pessimistic) view of the future, yet what I think everyone will agree on is his powerful and extensive description of how life was just 150 years and the way in which these inventions changed everyday life and how everyone used their time.

In my view, there is a clear and strong interaction between social norms, property/voting rights and technological advancement. As long as most peasants (who accounted for the bulk of the population) lived at the subsistence level on mostly self-grown food and self-made clothing, property rights were limited and even forms of slavery were present for centuries (mostly in the form of serfdom in Europe). Once technological advancement changed and enlarged the consumption basket as well as created a demand for factory workers (and an «exit» option for peasants in the country fields), labor services were remunerated in monetary terms and property started to become widespread. The introduction of large massive armies (as opposed to forms of professional army service) also accelerated the abolition of serfdom since nations needed free men to fight their battles.

As a result, while only a few centuries ago most people in the countryside had no property, faced serious restrictions in their movement (even in their most basic personal freedoms in the case of serfs), did not have voting rights and lived in the subsistence level, the 19th (and especially the 20th) century found them enjoying an ever expanding consumption basket, holding property and claiming an expanded array of rights. The Industrial Revolution and technological advancement was the main driving force for these changes.

In particular, not too long ago, even the simplest things that today we take for granted were extremely cumbersome tasks. Most families lived in rural farm houses, with no electricity, no central water and sewer systems meaning that all water (and waste) had to be carried by hand. Light was provided by candles, half the family budget was spent on food while most of the clothing (especially women’s clothing) was made at home by mothers and daughters.

In 1925, wives reported working an average of 6 hours per day for seven days on household tasks, which translates to more than a full-time 5 day/week modern job. Moreover, infant mortality was close to 20% while roughly one in four infants died before reaching the age of 5.

The high children mortality rate, coupled with the needs for household and manual farm work meant that the birth rate was exceptionally high. White women laid birth to an average of 4.6 children while black women to 7.7. Obviously that meant that the wife was usually busy raising a new born child, apart from taking care of the household on a full-time basis.

This all changed in a couple of decades. Clean running water and a sewer system led to a dramatic reduction of deaths caused by infectious diseases (37% of all deaths in 1900) and a drop of infant mortality rates from 20% to 5% in half a century:

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By 1950, the introduction and diffusion of modern conveniences and appliances had reached a critical point. At the same time, clothing was readily available in stores and did not need to be home-made. All this, led to a significant drop of the amount of work required to maintain a household and a large fall in fertility rates. In 1940, while the US was entering WWII only 65% of consumer spending was on categories that existed in 1869, with the share of services in the consumption basket doubling from 24% to 43% (while food decreased by a comparable amount from 44% to 22%).

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WWII full employment along with the millions of men occupied on the front line fighting the enemy, led to the women massively entering into the labor force for the first time. During the following decades, changing social norms meant that women would pursue academic education and a career in all occupations, increasing their participation rate from 35% in 1950 to 50% by 1980 (and 60% in 2000).

Yet what is quite interesting is the fact that, until roughly the end of the 19th century, necessity was the main driving factor for women non-participation in the labor force. Keeping the household was literally a full-time job, while high fertility rates meant that there was almost always an infant present in the family requiring constant attention. One had to choose between working manually in the agricultural fields or taking care of the household. There was no central heating, no running water, no refrigerator, no sewer at the house and every duty had to be done manually, taking hours to complete tasks that take only minutes today.

Obviously this division of labor was also the result of long-standing social norms as well as a function of the hardship associated with manual agricultural work. No work by women with a monetary remuneration meant limited property rights and subordination with regard to men.

Yet necessity and (the absence of) technology played a decisive role in this division. Once advancements in technology dropped the amount of time required for household maintenance coupled with lower infant mortality and a lower requirement of a large number of working hands for agricultural manual work, women’s time was freed on a extraordinary scale. Women started entering the labor force, first as manual factory workers (in WWII) and afterwards in all sorts professions once college education was made available to them (a task that required extensive fighting from their part).

Technology did not only change the consumption basket, create new professions and free human time for more leisure but it also had profound implications on long-established social norms, the division of labor within households and personal property rights, things that had remained quite stable for centuries. Today’s equality between men and women not only rests on decades-long women’s struggles but also on inventions and advances that completely changed the landscape of modern households.