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Social Conditions in Britain in the 1930s



Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: employment and unemployment

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There is a popular impression of the 1930s as a period of unbroken depression, deprivation and decay. However, on the contrary, the 1930s was a period in which social conditions were generally improving: people were better dressed, new houses with gardens were built, motorcars started to become popular. It was also a period in which mass culture developed: the BBC, and pop music. The period of the 1930s saw significant changes in the occupational distribution of the labour force. The process of deindustrialisation was at work - that is, the proportion of the work-force employed in manual labour was declining, whilst there was a growth of white-collar workers. [Table inserted here.] Types of growing white-collar employment: (1) move towards new industries, typified by Imperial Chemicals Industries (founded 1926) requiring more technicians; (2) expansion of retailing - for example, chain stores of Woolworth's, Marks and Spencer's and Boots; (3) growth of clerks: 4.5% of labour force in 1911 to 6.7% in 1931. There had been a decline of the traditional manufacturing industries of Victorian Britain. There was also a decline in agriculture. [Table inserted here.] By contrast, there was an increase in the numbers employed in the "new" technology based industries. The Central Electricity Board was established in 1926. [Table inserted here.] The number of women in employment also increased although the proportion decreased: [Table inserted here.] During the First World War there was an increase in employment of women, and the First World War accelerated the movement towards employment of women. The general underlying trend in numbers employed within the U.K. was upwards: 1920: 19.5m; dropping back to 17.4m in 1921; rising to 21.8m by 1939; the early 1930s created only a temporary setback. The National Government election manifesto of 1935 stated, "more persons are now employed in this country than ever before in its whole history." However, although these figures do indicate that there was an increase in employment generally in Britain, the period was also characterised by high levels of unemployment. From 1881 to 1913 the average unemployment rate was 4.8%; from 1921 to 1939 it was 14% which is a significant difference even taking into account that the figures were calculated differently for the two periods. One cause of the increase in the underlying rate of unemployment was the effect of violent oscillations in the trade cycle to which Britain was particular vulnerable, since a large proportion of Britain's output was traded. After the First World War there was a decline in demand for Britain's traditional products of textiles, iron and steel, coal and shipbuilding. Just after the conclusion of the war there was a speculative bubble in Britain, but this burst in 1921 and unemployment rose to a peak of 16.9% in 1921. Exports declined because of falling world prices of the primary producing products of Latin American, Africa and Asia, causing a corresponding decline in demand for British goods. After the Wall Street crash of October 1929 there was a collapse of American demand, and a further collapse of demand from the primary producers. Unemployment rose to 22.1% in 1932. The subsequent fall of the price of raw materials and food helped Britain out of the bottom of the cycle by helping to lower costs. Recovery peaked in 1937, but was sustained by the boom in arms manufacture. The highest levels of unemployment occurred in the traditional export industries. In 1932, 35% of coalminers, 31% of cotton workers, 36% of pottery workers were unemployed. Most of the unemployment was cyclical: most of the unemployed were only unemployed for less than six months. However, there was also structural unemployment - unemployment due to long-term decline of certain industries, exacerbated by the inability of the factor markets to adapt - i.e. workers were unable to migrate to regions where demand for labour was greater, and capital was unable to relocate in regions were labour was in excess supply. Evidence for the existence of this long-term structural unemployment: official unemployment rate at the top of the trade cycles in 1929 and 1937 were 10.4% and 10.8% respectively. Unemployment rates in declining industries were greater than the national average: in 1929, 25% of shipbuilders and repairers were unemployed; 19% of coalminers; 17% of iron and steel workers; 13% of cotton workers, with similar figures in 1937. The problem of structural unemployment was exacerbated by the unnatural increase in demand during the First World War for the products of the industries that were otherwise in long-term decline: iron and steel, clothing for uniforms; coal for power, and ships. After the First World War the long-term trend re-established itself with a vengeance - and British coal, for example, was unable to re-establish its share of the international market. Additional causes affecting this trend were: (1) increasing international competition in the products of the declining industries; (2) return to the gold standard in 1925 resulting in over-valued sterling, and hence depressing demand for UK exports; (3) development of protectionism; (4) changes in patterns of demand: e.g. change in demand from cotton to man-made fibres and from iron to steel. To some extent British industry tried to respond to these changes: The Lancashire Cotton Corporation was established in 1929 with a view to reducing the size of the industry; in 1936 legislation required the cotton industry to actually destroy surplus textile machinery. There were similar approaches in the coal and shipbuilding industries during the 1930s. The protective tariff given to the iron and steel industries during the 1930s was on the understanding that it would close plants and reduce excess capacity. Such schemes of rationalization resulted in more unemployment, and this, in tern, led to greater structural unemployment. Evidence of increasing structural unemployment: in September 1929, 45,000 of unemployed workers had been unemployed for more than 12 months; in August 1932 this was 412,000 (16.4% of those out of work). Structural unemployment was exacerbated by developments and rigidities in the labour and capital markets. (1) There was an increase in the numbers seeking work: working population increased in Great Britain by 6.5 m between 1911 and 1931. (2) Difficulties in transferring skills - e.g. a miner could not easily adapt to the work of an electrical engineer. (3) Preference of employers for younger and cheaper workers. Long-term unemployment was greater among the middle-aged: in 1931 13% of men between 25 and 44 were unemployed, but 22.6% of men between 55 and 64 were unemployed. (4) Difficulties of mobility: the declining industries were located in the North and West, but the expanding industries were located in the Midlands and South East. Between 1932 and 1937 half the new factories of Great Britain were located in Greater London. In 1937 unemployment in London, the South East and the Midlands was 6 or 7%, whilst it was 22.3% in Wales. The government attempted to respond by creating Special Areas for investment - for example, Team Valley near Gateshead. The most devastated areas were those dependent on a single industry - for example, Barrow-in-Furness, which was dependent on shipbuilding, or the coal-mining town of Rhondda in South Wales. One response of workers was to migrate to other regions where employment opportunities were better. This is shown by differences in population changes by region: Population changes in Great Britain between 1921 and 1937 - by region: [Table inserted here.]
Contents of
Social Conditions in Britain in the 1930s

1 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: employment and unemployment
2 Britain, Economic recovery in the 1930s
3 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Family income and expenditure
4 Demographic trends in Britain in the 1930s
5 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Poverty
6 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Housing
7 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Health
8 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Cars and Transport. Radio, Sport, Cinema, Religion
9 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Education
10 Social conditions in Britain in the 1930s: Advertising

Related articles: (1) Social Issues during the late 1920s, (2)