Most family historians, if they can trace their ancestors back far enough, will find that their families mostly lived in the country and made their living as farmers.
During the Little Ice Age (ca1300-1850) physical and environmental conditions made it more difficult to make a living farming. Destitute people began moving to towns and cities in search of work, greatly increasing populations in those centres. The results were overcrowding with continuing high rates of unemployment.
Studies by The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure showed that males engaged in agricultural work fell from about 75% of the population in 1500 to around 40% by 1800. At the same time, employment in the secondary sector, primarily involving manufacturing, and the tertiary or service sector, which included such occupations as teaching, began to grow (in Figure 1 below).
Technology had a major influence on the need for and the numbers of people required in the agricultural business. The growing use of mechanized farming methods meant that fewer people were needed to produce the same amount of food. Enclosure, beginning in the 16th century and culminating in the 1800s, resulted in larger farms but with fewer workers needed. There was also a shift in many regions to pastoral farming. Large tracts of land became unsuitable for cultivation as the climate changed for the worse during the Little Ice Age and growing conditions were poorer. Many land-owners switched to livestock, particularly sheep, which needed more area but less attendants.
The growth of the textile industry, built on the increasing supply of raw materials from both foreign and domestic sources – those sheep again – attracted large numbers of workers who, of course, had to move to the urban centres for steady employment. The population of London, for example, doubled between 1801 and 1851, and grew seven-fold by the end of the century. Textile manufacturing centres such as Birmingham grew at similar astounding rates: from about 1,500 in 1550; to 24,000 by 1750; to 74,000 by 1800; to over 230,000 in 1850; and over 520,000 by 1900.
Birmingham population from 1538 to 2009 (from Wikipedia: History of Birmingham)
The rush to the cities brought with it crowded and unsanitary conditions and the expansion of slum areas inhabited by the poorest in society. It also gave many people more opportunities to succeed in trades and professions not available in previous centuries.
Some areas, such as that around Birmingham, became the locus for jobs in secondary industries such as manufacturing. Maps produced by the Cambridge Group over several centuries show the changes in work-related sectors. The area around Manchester is a particularly good example of how the industrial revolution took over during the 18th century with secondary sector jobs climbing rapidly and spreading over a larger area.
Most of us who trace our ancestors will likely find our earliest family members on the farms or at least eking their livings in food-producing enterprises. Those around less than two hundred years were very possibly raising their families in urban centres. Some researchers may find that some family members were city-dwellers as far back as they can be found. Perhaps they were tradesmen assisting in the building of cities during the medieval period or merchants involved in local or international trade. Or members of the political establishment, including the nobility.
The differences between rural or urban origins will probably have resulted in very different family histories. It might be worth looking at how such origins affected subsequent generations, particularly with regard to their choice or accessibility to various occupations, land ownership, education or migration.