During the Second Industrial Revolution, life in industrialized nations changed dramatically. The electrified, mechanized workplace meant long hours and low wages for unskilled factory workers. Work was often dangerous and unemployment precarious. Nevertheless, industrialization did bring benefits. Mass-produced consumer goods were priced so that by the end of the nineteenth century, members of the working class could afford to purchase less-expensive versions of items that had once been available only to the middle and wealthy classes. The mechanization of agriculture and the development of refrigerated railroad cars made food more available and less expensive. Improved sanitation and medical advances reduced infant mortality and increased adults’ life expectancies. Important demographic changes took place at the same time. By the end of the nineteenth century, both middle-class and working-class families were having fewer children as laws restricting child labor and mandating education made it more difficult to employ children.
By the end of the nineteenth century, cities in industrialized nations were filled with people in search of work. These cities offered many benefits. For those who preferred high culture, plays, concerts, operas, and ballets were regularly staged. Music halls, arcades, and burlesque shows catered to the popular taste, as did amusement parks. Libraries and parks were open to everyone. Department stores gave people the opportunity to buy the latest fashions—or to dream about them through the window.
There were negative aspects to city life as well. Housing, especially for immigrants and the working class, was usually overcrowded, and rooms often lacked fresh air and sunlight. Both the water and the air in industrial cities were polluted, and infectious diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis were common. Poverty drove many to drink, and some women resorted to prostitution to survive. The literature and art produced by romantics, realists, and naturalists depicted all aspects of life in the industrial age.
Although working-class people in industrialized nations had limited choices about the place and terms of their employment, many other workers did not have even this small degree of freedom. Slavery continued into the second half of the nineteenth century in the United States and Brazil, as did serfdom in Russia. In other forms of unfree labor, contract laborers and indentured servants performed agricultural and other work on every one of the six inhabited continents. Debt bondage also trapped many people, including African American sharecroppers in the United States and female textile workers in Japan. Prisoners were also often sentenced to perform labor as part of their punishment. These systems of coerced and semicoerced labor remained intact throughout the nineteenth century in various parts of the world.
Witnessed in the second half of the nineteenth century was the migration of large numbers of people fleeing poverty, violence, and natural disaster. Europeans emigrated to North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Asians traveled to western Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Immigrants performed largely low-paid, physically demanding work on plantations and railroads and in factories. Non-European immigrants also faced racism in societies dominated by Europeans. Some countries attempted to restrict the immigration of particular groups. The United States, Canada, and Australia took steps to prohibit Asian migration. The United States also sought to limit immigration from southern and eastern Europe.
Attempts to solve the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization took a variety of forms. Some governments passed laws to abolish child labor, provide insurance for workers, ensure safe housing, prevent air and water pollution, and regulate prostitution. Middle-class reformers sought to improve society by altering personal behavior. They stressed the importance of morality and often attempted to restrict or prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Many also advocated for women’s rights. Members of the working class tried to better their lives by forming unions to force employers to reduce their hours, raise their wages, and provide safer working conditions. Many also turned to politics as a way to protect their interests. Influenced by the ideology of socialism, which theorized that the destruction of capitalism was the solution to social ills, they joined social democratic parties that organized unions and forced governments to pass legislation to protect workers. Other socialists advocated the violent overthrow of the ruling elites, as did some anarchists.