The Work Ethic in the 1930s

Chris Cook continues our special feature on the Work Ethic.

Between 1921 and 1939 there were never less than one million registered unemployed in Great Britain. The dark shadow of mass unemployment was present on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, from 1931 to 1935, the unemployment total never fell below two million and, at its highest point in the winter of 1932-3, it almost topped three million. These grim statistics provide the sombre backcloth against which attitudes towards the 'work ethic' in the 1930s must be assessed.

The 'search for work' in the 1930s varied greatly. To understand it, it is necessary to look more closely at the problem of unemployment. Unemployment varied tremendously, both by industry and by region. The hardest hit industries were the traditional staple trades: steel (where production fell from 9.6 million tons in 1929 to 5.2 million in 1931) shipbuilding (an industry which produced a million tons of shipping every year in the 1920s, but whose tonnage launched in 1933 was a pitiful 133,000 tons); coal-mining (with a fall from 250 million tons to 200 million tons in the four years up to 1933); and cotton (where exports between 1929 and 1931 were halved). The crisis in these traditional industries – the industries that had once helped make Britain the workshop of the world was exacerbated by the heavy concentration of these industries in certain regions.

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