From People Thought the Industrial Revolution Was Servile Too by Walter Russell Mead:
Those kind of fears have a long history. At the beginning of the industrial age, both the left and sentimentalists denounced factory work as servile and destructive, compared to the honest independence of the family farmer. The same factory system that pundits are now favorably contrasting to the evolving service economy was itself expected to result in permanent subservience. And just as those predictions didn’t come true, the wailing and gnashing of teeth about an economy centered around dog walkers and personal chefs and wedding planners will also turn out to be unjustified in retrospect.
In fact, what’s likely to happen in the information age is that services once reserved for a privileged few will increasingly be available for larger numbers of people. There will be more and less expensive personal chefs, for example, but more people than ever will be able to eat high class meals. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, especially when you consider the appalling dullness and deadening conformity of those industrial jobs and social conditions that people are apparently so nostalgic for.
It is not the summit of human social organization to create an economy where millions of people spend their working lifetime making mechanical motions that a robot could replace. And serving people is not necessarily servile or demeaning. Jobs that involve varied tasks and using the worker’s talent and social skills to enhance and enrich other lives are not bad lives.
Much of the reason that people fear the new service economy is that it, like the industrial economy before it, is emerging out of the breakdown of an earlier model. Because the millions of people fleeing the agricultural economy and seeking factory work were so desperate, and because the supply of willing labor was so large that factory wages were desperately low and factory working conditions were so horrible, factory work looked worse in Charles Dickens’ time than it looked later. As industrial workers adjusted to the new conditions, as the balance of supply and demand in the labor markets changed in favor of workers, and as society came to see this new form of economic organization as normal and natural, both conditions and attitudes changed.
There is probably no era of American history that is more misunderstood and wrongly maligned than the 53 year period between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War I. I’m 53 years old, so that’s the same length of time that I’ve been alive.
During that period we transitioned from a predominantly agrarian economy to primarily industrial. We tripled in population, and at least half of those were immigrants as we absorbed millions of people from Europe and Asia as well as Mexico. We connected our east and west coasts and then filled in the spaces in between. Railroads criss-crossed the nation and extended into Mexico.
Tremendous wealth was created during those 53 years. That prosperity was not distributed equally, but we saw huge growth of the middle class. Many of the so-called “robber barons” started the era poor and finished it fabulously wealthy. That is the definition of social mobility.
It was an era of tremendous change, and change always brings problems. But some of our problems were preexisting. The South was devastated from the Civil War and would not recover until the latter half of the 20th Century. Lingering resentments from the Civil War resulted in violence on the western frontier. The Native Americans that weren’t slaughtered were rounded up and placed on “reservations” located in inhospitable areas.
The national economy went thru cycles of boom and bust. There was little or no regulation of business. There were regular epidemics that killed thousands. There were no laws on worker safety, food safety, or sanitation.
Because of the tendency of academia to lean leftward, the era between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War I is often portrayed as some kind of dark age. In reality is was an era of growth and progress.