Weights and Currencies: Estimating Levels of Swedish Labour Productivity in Agriculture, Industry and Services in Relation to the US and the UK, 1850–2010

Research project
Active research
Project owner
Unit for Economic History, Department of Economy and Society

Short description

An influential idea in economic history is that relative backwardness in productivity levels entails potential for more rapid growth rates of productivity; poor countries tend to catch up because they can deploy technologies developed in richer countries. Sweden in the mid-nineteenth century was relatively backward but began to make great strides in reducing the gap to the leading countries early in the twentieth century, and achieved comparable levels of living standards in the second half of it.

To understand this achievement we cannot look merely at GDP per capita and compare Sweden with similar (Scandinavian) countries. Instead, we need to establish comparable productivity levels in Sweden relative to those countries, the UK in the nineteenth century, and the US in the twentieth, where most of the technology originated. Doing so for agriculture, manufacturing and market services would uncover the forces that made it feasible for Sweden to catch up with the productivity frontiers. In addition, it would allow us to explore the causes behind the Swedish growth retardation in the 1970s and 1980s and to trace the historical origin of the Swedish dynamic market services in the 2000s. The productivity benchmark for manufacturing will be based on the industry-of-origin method and the benchmarks for agriculture and market services on physical output per worker. Time series of output and labour input, extrapolated from the benchmarks, are used to cover the years from 1850 to 2010.