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Economy / Jobs

A hundred years ago, which English cities were most vulnerable to economic change?

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

One of the more fascinating subplots in this year’s Cities Outlook report, published back in January, takes the form of a flashback. Back in 1911, just as in 2018, a significant share of the workforce had jobs that were at risk from technological change.

Back then, the biggest threat was automation: over the next few decades, the rise of labour saving devices like washing machines would wipe out an entire class of jobs in domestic service. Over the same period, better communications technology would wipe out assorted porter and messenger jobs, while the rise of the supermarket would kill off various door-to-door delivery jobs.

The idea that, say, telephones or tumbledryers are a bad thing looks distinctly silly from a modern perspective. If you were one of the people whose income was at risk, though, you may have had other ideas. This chart shows some of the jobs under threat:

By my count, that’s nearly one in eight of the workforce, whose jobs were about to get wiped out by new technology.

It’s also worth looking at a map showing where these changes would be felt most. On this map, dark green dots represent English cities which would see the highest numbers of job losses due to automation. What do you notice about it?

Click to expand.

At first glance this is pretty surprising. In many southern English cities – which even in 1911 were pretty prosperous, and now are leaps ahead of the north – between a sixth and a quarter of jobs were at risk from automation, far higher than in many northern industrial centres.

Think about this for a moment, though, and it makes sense. Rich southern cities were more likely to have households stuffed with domestic servants. But those cities did not stop being rich just because they replaced maids with washing machines.

Here’s another map, showing which cities had large numbers of jobs in another vulnerable sector, mining and manufacturing:

Click to expand.

This time it’s a more familiar pattern: it’s in the industrial cities of the midlands and the north where the threat was greatest. The numbers are also much bigger than those on the first map. Every city was looking at losing over 10 per cent of its jobs; for most in the industrial heartland it was over a third, and in some it was nearly 70 per cent.

There are, best I can see, three takeaways from all this. The first is that not all job destruction is bad: the rise of the modern home put an entire class of domestic servants out of work, but it was also clearly positive for the society as a whole. Nobody today seems likely to swap their washing machine and tumble dryer for a live in servant, let alone the opportunity to take a job as one.

The second is that some job destruction is much more traumatic. The cities that lost jobs to washing machines are largely fine today; many of those which lost jobs in mining and manufacturing aren’t. The cities on that second map where the job losses were greatest are, with few exceptions, still struggling today.

The third lesson requires another map. Almost everywhere, there were more jobs overall in 2016 than there were in 1911:

Click to expand.

This trend isn’t quite universal, and several of the cities which have lost jobs are among those whose dependence on manufacturing made them most vulnerable in 1911. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly towards more jobs rather than less.

The British economy is once again – or perhaps, more accurately, still – facing radical change. The future is unpredictable, and the past is not always a guide. Nonetheless, I do remain suspicious of those who argue that new technologies which destroy jobs today will automatically mean fewer jobs tomorrow. They haven’t before.

You can read the whole of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

Sources of data: Census 1911 (England and Wales only); University of Portsmouth, A Vision of Britain Through Time.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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