Standard of Living, Consumption, and Political Economy Over the Past 500 Years

Carole Shammas

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780199561216
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in History

Standard of Living, Consumption, and Political Economy Over the Past 500 Years


The phrase ‘standard of living’ is closely identified with a more-than-century-long debate in both the popular press and academic journals about the effects of the early stages of industrialization on the working class, especially in nineteenth-century Britain. This article explores when and why the consumption of material goods became the measure of the ‘standard of living’, and, secondly, what has led to its displacement in more recent times. These shifts provide insight into changing assumptions about the desirability of household accumulation. The article tracks the state of our knowledge about transformations in living standards from the early modern period on, and examines whether a longer and broad historical view has demoted industrialization as a causal factor. It looks at the promotion of well-being by limiting consumption, political economy and the emergence of a standard of living debate, human capital, public goods, poverty lines, and consumer sovereignty.

Keywords: standard of living; consumption; industrialization; well-being; political economy; human capital; public goods; poverty lines; consumer sovereignty; Britain

Article.  7671 words. 

Subjects: History

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