Families ate more varied diets, lived in better homes, and dressed in inexpensive, mass-produced clothing. Advances in medicine ensured healthier lives.
New job opportunities opened up for skilled and unskilled workers. The building of cities, railroads, and factories provided jobs. The demand for goods and the growth of new industries, such as railroads and eventually automobiles, created more job opportunities.
The new industrial world was more open to change and innovation than the old rural world. Enterprising people opened new businesses and invented new products. The British potter Josiah Wedgwood, for example, was an entrepreneur who combined science and new industrial methods of production. Wedgwood experimented with new materials to improve the quality of his pottery. He set up a factory that gave each different job to a specially skilled worker. Wedgwood also used his pottery to spread ideas about social justice, especially the abolition of the slave trade. His factory cast antislavery medallions, worn by many, that carried the image of a slave in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”
The Industrial Revolution opened new opportunities for success and increased social mobility, or the ability of individuals or groups to move up the social scale. In the past, birth determined a person's rank in society. Although birth still gave nobles their status, some families were able to move up the social ladder through successful enterprise. By the late 1800s, many people embraced the “rags to riches” idea, whereby a person could achieve great wealth and status through hard work and thrift.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith proposed ideas about free market competition that are still applied today.
With social mobility came greater political rights. As the middle class expanded, its members pushed for political influence. Gradually throughout the 1800s, working-class men gained the right to vote. From 1831 to 1885, the number of voters in England and Wales increased from 366,000 to almost 8 million. The growing number of voters gave the working class more power as politicians began to have to appeal to their concerns. Later, women also earned the right to vote. Labor unions won the right to bargain with employers for better wages, hours, and working conditions.
Why was the Industrial Revolution seen as both a blessing and a curse?
Many thinkers and economists tried to understand the staggering changes taking place in the early Industrial Age. As heirs to the Enlightenment, these thinkers looked for natural laws to explain the world of business and economics. Their ideas would influence governments down to the present. Among the most influential schools of thought were laissez-faire economics, utilitarianism, and socialism.
During the Enlightenment, thinkers looked for natural laws that governed the world of business and economics. Physiocrats argued that natural laws should be allowed to operate without interference. As part of this philosophy, they believed that government should not interfere in the free operation of the economy. In the early 1800s, middle-class business leaders embraced this laissez-faire, or “hands-off,” approach.
The main proponent of laissez-faire economics was Adam Smith, author of the bestseller The Wealth of Nations. Smith asserted that a free market, or unregulated exchange of goods and services, would come to help everyone, not just the rich. The free market, Smith said, would produce more goods at lower prices, making them affordable to everyone. A growing economy would also encourage capitalists to reinvest profits in new ventures.
As the Industrial Revolution spread, later supporters of this free-enterprise capitalism pointed to the successes of the early Industrial Revolution, in which government had played a limited role.