During the ‘golden age’ of the 1950s and 1960s unemployment in Britain averaged 2 per cent. This was far lower than ever before or since and a number of hypotheses have been put forward to account for this unique period in labour market history. But there has been little attempt to isolate precisely how the determinants of wage setting and unemployment differed before, during and after the golden age. We estimate a two-equation model over the whole period from 1872 to 1999 using a newly constructed set of long-run labour market data. We find that the structure of real wage setting was different in the golden age, consistent with notions about the postwar consensus, but it did not result in wages that were significantly lower relative to productivity than during other eras. Rapid growth in productivity and world trade together with low interest rates did keep unemployment lower during the golden age than after the 1970s. But the key difference between the golden age and the periods before and after was shifts in labour demand that are not accounted for by any of the variables that are usually thought to determine the equilibrium unemployment rate.
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