We should worry less about robots taking jobs in cities, and more about the types of jobs they will create

Automation will bring opportunities as well as challenges. Policy makers need to act now to ensure that cities across the UK can benefit

The summer of 1976 was the hottest on record in the UK, and Barnsley was no different to anywhere else. Even with the windows open, the hot weather kept Lynne Williams awake. By the time the milk float reached her house at 6am, she usually decided that attempting to get any more sleep was useless.

That Lynne was up early at least meant that she wouldn’t be late for her job as a teller at the local bank, a position she had just started having left school the same summer. But her lack of sleep, combined with the heat, didn’t help her concentration when she arrived. This often led to daydreams about whether the whirring ATM in the corner, installed just a couple of months previously, would one day make her job redundant.

While Lynne and her story are fictional, the rise of the ATM did put paid to the job of a bank teller. And the rise of supermarkets now means that the sight of a milk float is very rare indeed, with Lynne perhaps today choosing to do her grocery shop online or at the nearest Tesco Express (paid for using contactless – no need even for an ATM nowadays).

This story illustrates that despite much recent discussion about the rise of the robots and their job-destroying powers, change brought about by new inventions, globalisation or demographic shifts is nothing new. And nor is the fretting about its implications. Indeed, these concerns stretch back to the Luddite protests of the early 19th century, and German magazine Der Spiegel has been predicting that robots would destroy human jobs nearly every decade going back to the 1960s.

While these concerns are widespread, they are perhaps a little overblown. As Cities Outlook 2018 shows, almost all UK cities now have many more jobs than they did in 1911, despite the waves of technological change over the last century. Indeed, in that time the number of jobs in British cities rose by 60%, an increase of 6.7m jobs in total.

Of course, the nature of work looks very different today than it did a century ago. The work of domestic servants, which made up over 8 per cent of the urban workforce in 1911, is now largely done by washing machines and microwaves. Streetlamp lighters was swept away by the rise of electricity. And the combustion engine has put paid to jobs looking after the  horses that once pulled vehicles. But rather than leading to an overall fall in the number jobs available, they were more than offset by jobs in new industries, such as IT, social care and telecoms.

We should expect more of the same over the coming years. Yes, robots will take some jobs – the position of a long-distance lorry driver may not exist in 20 years’ time, and cashiers and retail assistants are likely to become increasingly rare. But jobs will also be created in other areas, and this will increase the number of jobs overall.

So does this mean that there’s nothing to worry about? Well, not quite. Where there should be cause for concern is around the types of jobs created in the past century – and how that differs across the country. Cities like Mansfield and Wakefield, which have poorly performing economies, nonetheless have more jobs today than they did 100 years ago. The problem is that they are mostly lower-skilled, meaning there have not been corresponding increases in productivity or wages. That has led to the widening gap in wages and standards of living that has been seen across urban Britain in recent decades.

For this trend not to be repeated, struggling cities need to change the offer they make to businesses. As we set out in our briefing Why don’t we see growth up and down the country? higher and lower-skilled businesses look for very different attributes in a place – the former (think Google and Cisco) tends to looks for a pool of higher-skilled workers and a network of higher-skilled businesses, while the latter (think Sports Direct warehouses and NPower call centres) tend to want access to pool of lower-skilled workers and cheap land. Cities such as Reading and Cambridge offer the former, while cities such as Doncaster and Blackpool tend to offer more of the latter.

This means that skills will be a central element of any policy response. For the grandchildren of Lynne Williams, it will mean improving the access they have to good quality schools – of which there is a shortage in Barnsley – giving them the skills they need for tomorrow’s labour market. For her son-in-law, it will mean better access to lifelong learning to make sure his skills are kept relevant to the changing nature of work. And for those who see their jobs disappear, it will mean providing access to retraining. Policy should not repeat the same mistake that it made with Lynne’s dad, a former miner, who was moved onto incapacity benefit to be eased to retirement rather than being offered retraining (Barnsley has the eighth-highest share of 50-64 year olds that have no formal qualifications) when the pits closed in the city.

Whether the summer of 2018 will reach the heights of 1976 is as yet unknown. What we do know though is that change is inevitable. And it will bring opportunity – Lynne still works for the same employer, but is now regional manager of the bank’s mortgage lending team. The challenge for policy is not to stem the tide of change, but help this year’s school leavers and the places they live in to adapt to access this opportunity.

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