An old established industry – supporting 1.3 million jobs in England and Wales – is threatened by profound technological change. While a lucky few will remain employed, a sequence of previously unimaginable innovations will render many long-serving staff unnecessary.
The year isn’t 2018, though, but 1911, and the industry is indoor domestic service. Over the first part of the next century, many of those working in it will gradually see their jobs disappear. Also staring down the barrel of obsolescence are around 400,000 messengers, porters, watchmen and laundry workers – not to mention nearly 70,000 coachmen and almost 50,000 stable workers.
The figures, taken from census data, were unearthed by researchers at the Centre for Cities, for its annual Cities Outlook report, which demonstrates that the past can hold lessons for policymakers about what is to come.
“We sort of seem to talk about automation, in particular, as being this brand new problem that we’re going to have to think about from scratch,” Paul Swinney, head of research at the Centre for Cities, said. “Where the reality is that change is ever constant… Understanding that it’s not new can better prepare us for the future.”
Unfortunately, Swinney said, we don’t know exactly where these workers went – what new jobs they found, if any. What we do know, though, is which cities were most affected by the changes, and how they fared over the following years.
The southern English cities of Bournemouth, Oxford, Southend and Cambridge were all significantly impacted; over 15% of their 1911 workforce worked in laundries or domestic service, now both jobs “mostly replaced by automation.” Meanwhile, in the north, Burnley, Blackburn, and Preston were far more softly hit. Under 3% of workers in these cities were employed in these jobs.
Yet look at the above cities today, and it’s clear their respective fates on this score alone have not determined their success in the long-run.
According to Centre for Cities’ analysis, Cambridge and Oxford both have low levels of welfare spending per capita and high weekly wages. Oxford, in particular, has a high employment rate of between 75.1 and 80%.
The fate of the Northern cities is more mixed. Blackburn has a very low employment rate of 64.1-67.9%, and all three have high welfare spending per capita, which in Burnley and Blackburn stands at more than £3,711 ($5,270).
“Cities in the South in particular have responded pretty well,” said Swinney, “because actually when their more traditional industries have started to decline… what they’ve been able to do is to respond by attracting in these new jobs.”
Meanwhile, for cities in the North responding to the decline of traditional industries: “While they have responded and have created more jobs, what they’ve tended to do is replace low-skilled jobs in one area of the economy with low skilled jobs in a new area of the economy.”
For Swinney, then, the key to making sure workers can embrace change is skills training; old, outdated jobs will usually be replaced by new ones, but that relies on innovative businesses being able to recruit the workforce they need. “We’ve got no real idea about where jobs growth is going to come from in 10, 15 or 20 years time,” he said, but “the key things that are important for businesses in the future are probably not going to look too different.”
For example, while we don’t know the fate of all the redundant coachmen of the ’20s and ’30s, we can look more clearly at the results of heavy industry closing in many Northern cities in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In such places, the share of 50- to 64-year-olds with no formal qualifications is much higher than it is in much of the South. In Liverpool, for example, the proportion is 26%, compared to just 6% in Swindon.
For Swinney, this demonstrates the effect of shifting workers from collapsing industries on to welfare without a plan to equip them with new skills. Providing a social safety net alone, he said, “doesn’t help people to respond and adapt.” Infrastructure like housing and good transport links is also important, he said.
The Centre for Cities is recommending schools and colleges focus on teaching “interpersonal skills, cognitive skills (such as originality and fluency of ideas) and judgment and decision-making.” For adult retraining, the report says, policymakers should consider a scheme whereby individuals are allocated hours to spend on training. France has recently launched a similar policy.
Alastair Reid, a Fellow in History at Girton College, University of Cambridge, said that “technological innovation” (a term he prefers to “automation”) does have some impact on the labour market, but commentators often overplay it.
“The fear of technological innovation by people who are frightened of it is greatly overemphasised,” Reid said. Compared to forces like overseas competition, access to finance and the depletion of finite resources, “it’s not really such a big deal.”
British workers, he added, have usually been fairly accepting of new technology – the oft-cited “Luddites” of the 19th century, for example, “weren’t actually opposed to technical innovation – they just wanted to make sure it was going to be on terms that suited them,” said Reid.
Though, Reid cautioned, the weakening of trades unions in recent decades might tilt the balance away from workers as they come to negotiate their role in the changing labour market of the future.
Lessons could be drawn, Reid added, from Germany, where employers traditionally often responded to falling demand and profits with collective cuts in wages, rather than mass redundancies. In Germany too, he said, investors’ focus on more long-term returns had also enabled employers to make better use of technology beyond just short-term cost cutting.
The imminent “rise of the robots” can instil policymakers with Terminator-style terror. But the story of technological change in Britain is not a sci-fi horror. There are plenty of risks ahead, but the right policy responses can help workers move forward, instead of getting left behind.
(Picture credit: Flikr/National Library of Ireland)