Was the Industrial Revolution ultimately positive or negative? How did it affect social classes, family life, and standards of living?

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James Blain eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Industrial Revolution, first in England and Europe, then the United States, then the rest of the world, represented a sea change in the way work and consumption were conducted. If it was ultimately positive or negative is difficult to answer because it was both, but it was inevitable. Transportation was evolving and people were inventing machinery. It was only a matter of time before those with an eye for profit combined streamlined methods with a growing and increasingly sophisticated distribution network via canals, steamboats, the railroad, etc. Demand for various products, beginning with textiles (at least in the U.S.) grew and factories were built to meet demand.

The Revolution provided jobs and changed the way work was conducted from home-based and freewheeling to timely, sober and  severely constricted. It benefitted many by employing them and providing a systematic work ethic, but in the push for profits it also hurt workers due to long, hard hours with decreasing pay. A gap grew between workers and management and, at least in the United States, immigrant and white workers. The environment suffered as well.

The question of ultimate positivity or negativity rests with stewardship: were those guiding and managing industry good stewards of their workers and the environment? Sadly, environmental concerns came to the fore late in the game and it took unions to rectify injustices to workers. With adjustments, the Revolution was ultimately positive but certain practices such as child labor and sweatshops continue in parts of the world and as long as profit is the primary motivator, as it invariably seems to be, these problems will always taint industry.

Source: Davidson, James West et al. U.S.: A Narrative History Volume I. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.