I wonder what was the proportion of people that worked in agriculture (growing food and raising livestock, not processing food in a factory plant) throughout the past centuries in Europe and also, to compare, in North America.

I imagine that it didn't change much throughout the Dark ages and decreased suddenly as industrial production took over, so I'm especially interested in statistics at that period of time.

  • 3
    If we restrict to just Western Europe and the USA then it started out at over 80% and decreased to about 2% today in the USA and some EU countries. ... Many factors lowered the percent over the last few centuries: Better roads, secure currency, lower crime rate, several improvements in plow technology, breeding better draft animals, paved roads, crop rotation practices developed, canal development, railways and steamships, refrigeration, electricity and mechanized farming, refrigerated trucks and planes. Getting food to a viable market before it spoiled was a HUGE advance. Feb 21, 2013 at 11:56
  • Thank you for the answer. Do you have some more indications, such as the centuries? Or any source?
    – Stockfisch
    Feb 22, 2013 at 10:50
  • This is one of those big/vague questions that's easy to ask, but much harder to answer in a documented way. I started to put together a proper answer, with references, but it exceeded the time budget I gave it, so I commented instead. I may finish my answer later but make no promises. Feb 22, 2013 at 11:25
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    PS: The actual "science", even for modern figures is full of wishes, educated guesswork, and interpretation. For example, the 2% figure, for first world nations, is misleading. Since those ag-workers would not be productive without the transportation, chemical, energy, finance sectors, etc. Take away one of those, and the modern farm is severely crippled. Everything's interdependent in ways that no career politician can understand. So that 2% figure is ultimately meaningless. Back in time is, of course, much murkier. Feb 22, 2013 at 11:39
  • I see :) .. thank you for the clarification and the time you spent on researching this question!
    – Stockfisch
    Feb 22, 2013 at 12:09

1 Answer 1


The answer to this question would vary quite a bit country, e.g. looking at the second source below, a study has estimated that in 1500, the figure was about 55% in the Netherlands, but 75% in Poland and France, so the scope you've mentioned is very broad.

However, I did find a couple of sources: first off, the World bank has some data on fairly recent times, e.g. for the US from 1980 to 2010. In this source, it would probably be most interesting to look at rapidly developing countries such as India, Malaysia, or even China, although the Chinese figures seem quite odd, with a drop from 44.1% in 2002 to 4.4% in 2003 almost certainly signifying a major change in what was being measured, or outright fraud in one or both figures.

I also found a perhaps more user-friendly overview of some different studies at https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-employment/. There are graphs at least for a sample of European countries from 1300-1400 onwards, and for the US from 1800-2000.

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