Rapid Social Change, Changing Work Patterns
Iceland was amongst the poorest nations of the world during the latter part of the nineteenth-century. Agriculture was main type of employment from the period of settlement through to the twentieth-century. Understandibly, agriculture is sensitive to environmental change and difficult years (through cold or natural disasters) have often brought famine.
The vast majority of people used to live in the country and the farm formed the cornerstone of society. The first changes in Icelandic social patterns came with industrialization: the mechanization of fishing ships began and, at the beginning of the twentieth-century, trawling was introduced. There followed changes in work and residential patterns. Whereas fishing had previously been seasonal work, people now moved out of the countryside and into villages where they could take part in the many occupations connected with the fishing industry.
But even more changes in work practices and demographics were occasioned by World War II. It is quite certain that, due to the economic changes caused by military occupation, the War marked the beginning of modernization in Iceland.
Iceland was occupied by the British in 1940, who were replaced by the American military in 1941. The occupation was of enormous economic significance for the nation: roads were laid, airports built and so on, and a variety of services were called for by the army itself. There was, in other words, a strong demand for labour and many Icelanders were able to get new and well paid jobs. In addition, due to an increase in demand in European markets, the fish price rose. Ironically, these wartime factors all worked to the prosperity of the nation.
These changing social conditions have had an influence on all aspects of Icelandic society, and migration from the countryside to Reykjavík is higher than ever. Rural society has, in a short time, turned into village-based communities and most Icelanders now live in urban areas.
Indeed, only 3% of Icelanders now live off the land whereas the number was 83% in 1860. The largest agricultural sector is livestock, although new areas of farming have developed in recent years, such as fur farming, fish farming and forest cultivation.
Handicrafts and cottage industries continued into the twentieth-century, but with mechanization there followed a real increase in the level of work done by industry. Most people today work in food, tourism, construction and large scale industries, as well as for the software companies. Attempts have been made to create more varied forms of employment, including through an increase in large scale industry – a controversial measure.
Yet the sea remains one of the most valuable of Iceland’s natural resources and fish products are its most important exports. As such, the Icelandic economy is very dependent on the fishing industry, with fish products making up some 40% of the nation’s export earnings.
The fishing grounds around the country form one of the basis of the nation’s good standard of living, placing Iceland amongst the highest income nations of the world. Whether people are as unanimous in their views about the exploitation of this resource, and access to it, is another matter.