Consider a time period of several decades when there is a high level of technological progress, but typical wage levels remain stagnant while profits soar, driving a sharp rise in inequality. In broad-brush terms, this description fits the US economy for the last few decades. But it also fits the economy of the United Kingdom during the first wave of the Industrial Revolution in the first half of the 19th century.
Economic historian Robert C. Allen calls this the "Engels' pause," because Friedrich Engels, writing in books like The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, described this confluence of economic patterns. Allen laid out the argument about 10 years ago in "Engels’ pause: Technical change, capital accumulation, and inequality in the British industrial revolution," published in Explorations in Economic History (2009, 46: pp. 418–435).
Allen summarizes his argument about the arrival and then the departure of the Engels' pause in this way:
According to the Crafts-Harley estimates of British GDP, output per worker rose by 46% between 1780 and 1840. Over the same period, Feinstein’s real wage index rose by only 12%. It was only a slight exaggeration to say that the average real wage was constant, and it certainly rose much less than output per worker. This was the period, and the circumstances, described by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class. In the next 60 years, however, the situation changed. Between 1840 and 1900, output per worker increased by 90% and the real wage by 123%. This was the ‘modern’ pattern in which labour productivity and wages advance at roughly the same rate, and it emerged in Britain around the time Engels wrote his famous book.
The key question is: why did the British economy go through this two phase trajectory of development? ... Between 1760 and 1800, the real wage grew slowly (0.39% per annum) but so did output per worker (0.26%), capital per worker, and total factor productivity (0.19%). Between 1800 and 1830, the famous inventions of the industrial revolution came on stream and raised aggregate TFP growth to 0.69% per year. This technology shock pushed up growth in output per worker to 0.63% pa but had little impact on capital accumulation or the real wage, which remained constant. This was the heart of Engels’ Pause ... In the next 30 years 1830–1860, TFP growth increased to almost one percent per annum, capital per worker began to grow, and the growth in output per worker rose to 1.12% pa. The real wage finally began to grow (0.86% pa) but still lagged behind output per worker with most of the shortfall in the beginning of the period. From 1860 to 1900, productivity, capital per worker, and output per worker continued to grow as they had in 1830–1860. In this period, the real wage grew slightly faster than output per worker (1.61% pa versus 1.03%). The ‘modern’ pattern was established.
In short, technological growth first led to a period where wages did not keep up with economic growth, and then to a period where wages rose faster than economic growth.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.