It seems to me that a war have two opposite effects on the post-war workforce :

  • it decreases the active population because of the deaths
  • it increases the active population by mobilizing women (who stay on the labor market after the war)

Is it correct ? And which of these two effects prevails in the case of the WWI and the WWII please ?

  • The quality of this question could be improved through the use of standard terminology in relation to economic history. It could be improved through the use of one of any of the standard political economies' frames of reference (of your choice even). May 21, 2013 at 5:51
  • Sorry, I'm not an expert. Do you think about "active population" ? What is the correct term for this ?
    – Arnaud
    May 21, 2013 at 8:37
  • ABS provides free, high quality, analysis of international standards in relation to Australia (as their case): abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Previousproducts/… May 22, 2013 at 1:25

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure that deaths decrease the active population

Historically speaking there are periods when war is conducted only by professional military (in which case there is no effect on the labor force), and periods where war is conducted by citizen/soldier/militia. Different sides in the same war may have different participation rates. Military service in most wars is a very tiny fraction of total population. I believe military service is generally less than 10% of the population - meaning that the change in labor force participation is effectively insignificant.

I'm not sure that women are mobilized in all wars.

I'm not sure that there was a vast surge in female employment during the Napoleonic wars or even during the Vietnam war. I know that modern specialists in women's history question the extent to which women's participation in the labor force actually surged during WWII. Women's participation in the labor force probably shifted between segments, but may not have risen significantly. (My girlfriend has written several papers on this, but I haven't learned to boil down her thesis into a sound bite that fits neatly on SE).

I'm not sure how you're defining "Active Population"

Inventing your own term here makes it very difficult to provide an answer with references and citations. I think you should probably research employment to population ratio or other standard terms of use. The interesting question is whether the war pulls people out of the idle class into the working class. Even the unemployment rates only measure the proportion of the population that chooses to seek work - it ignores those who have given up, or choose not to participate (because they're wealthy, because they're handicapped, because they are criminal, etc.)

I think it is safer and more accurate to say that the allocation of the labor force shifts from private enterprise (butter) to mandated production (guns). The proportion of the GDP that is shifted is probably much more important than the labor force participation.

  • Thank you for your very detailed answer. I was not aware of this complexity. In fact, I have in mind specifically the two world wars. For these ones, I think that women were actually mobilized and that there were numerous deaths in the active population. Sorry I don't know the accurate terms, but globally I think about the number of people who work.
    – Arnaud
    May 20, 2013 at 14:14
  • Be careful and check those assumptions. As I said, my girlfriend's reasearch indicates that the increased female participation in the workforce has been vastly overstated. Women shifted from leisure and service sectors to industrial/military production sectors - but that was true of both geneders.
    – MCW
    May 20, 2013 at 15:07
  • I've seen in my class that in the US, 13 million women worked in 1940, 20 million in 1945. This is a very big gap, and so I'm surprised that the very fact that the number of women who worked has increased is questionable. But I believe you. So, for you, during the two world wars, the workforce has dropped, because of the deaths ? (and not increased because of women)
    – Arnaud
    May 20, 2013 at 16:27
  • I'll defer to statistics and discuss it with my girlfriend. I'm skeptical that the number killed is a significant fraction of the total workforce. Prior to research, my hypothesis would be that the effect on workforce would be within the elasticity of the size of the workforce. Although the war will have an effect on the workforce, I would estimate that it would be fairly small.
    – MCW
    May 20, 2013 at 16:37
  • I think that, in almost all cases, you are right. But for the world wars, it's less clear : in France, the WWI has killed 10 % of the active male population.
    – Arnaud
    May 20, 2013 at 16:49

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