The anxiety about robots stealing jobs is overblown. Policymakers need to focus on more immediate threats

Uhoh: Pepper, the Japanese android. Image: Getty.

“The robots are coming to take our jobs”, the Evening Standard told Londoners in December 2016. In case that didn’t depress their readers enough, the article went on to spell out the coming doom: “The sheer pace of change in computational power and grinding efficiencies of automation will alter or eliminate many of our jobs, far faster than we anticipate.”

And then, to ensure the anxiety was sufficiently widespread, they reminded their middle-class readers that “many of the relatively fortunate in the professional class in London will face upheavals too”.

Anxiety about the impact of robots on the world of work has been a hot topic across Western countries for several years. You couldn’t move at Davos last year without seeing grown men (it’s always men) with their heads in their hands predicting the end of work. Bill Gates is so worried that he has called for a robots tax.

But is the rise of the robots really what the mayor and other London policymakers should be spending their time thinking about? Here are three reasons why we might want to dial down the robot angst and focus our anxiety elsewhere.

First, if the robots are taking all our jobs, they’re doing a really bad job of it. Far from falling, the proportion of Londoners in work has risen fast in recent years, with the London employment rate now three percentage points higher than it was on the eve of the financial crisis. London’s employment rate currently stands at a record high of almost 74 per cent, significantly higher than all other major UK cities bar Bristol.

Second, London is less at risk of automation abolishing work than most parts of the UK. That’s because of the kind of work that actually gets done within the M25. Manufacturing jobs are famously prone to being replaced by robots because of the repetitive and physical nature of much of the work: think of a modern car factory filled with robot arms, compared to the world of Henry Ford. But manufacturing jobs make up a much smaller share of the work done in London than across Great Britain as a whole. London has instead a far greater share of professional and finance jobs, which are much less susceptible (though not totally immune) to being automated.

Third, robot scares are far from new. Back in the 1980s, the headlines were focused on a new-fangled thing, the computer chip, that was threatening to destroy work. “Robots to take over the world” was another Evening Standard headline. That was printed on 11 September 1995, and they’ve not done it yet.


None of this means that there are no serious public policy implications of automation. Industries that are affected can see big changes in employment levels – especially where the related forces of globalisation and automation come together, as they have for clothes manufacturing in the UK. The nature of specific jobs can also change, even if the work is still there. For example, there are questions about the extent to which technology is used to control workers.

But the big picture is that most of the current bout of robot anxiety over the London economy is overdone. That matters – not just because the anxiety is misplaced, but because it distracts London’s policymakers from the real issues that need addressing.

For example, London has seen an increase in the number of people engaged in various forms of precarious work in recent years. There are now 120,000 people on zero-hours contracts in London, the second-highest number in any region (though the proportion of Londoners on a zero-hours contract is similar to the UK average). Many of these workers will be putting in regular hours, but without the guarantees that would help them plan.

London has also seen a much bigger pay squeeze than the UK average since the financial crisis – something that should be at the top of the list of policymakers’ concerns. Pay is down a shocking 13 per cent in London since 2009, compared to less than 7 per cent across the UK. Indeed, average weekly earnings have not increased at all in London between 2011 and 2016, whereas house prices are up by 60 per cent and rents up by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, the main national policy to raise wages for low earners, the National Living Wage, will have less impact in London than elsewhere.

For policymakers wanting to ensure that London’s labour market remains a success in the years ahead, worrying about the right things is crucial. Yes, technology brings challenges, as always – but let’s focus on the very real problems of stagnant pay and precarious work, rather than the science fiction of robots taking all our jobs.

Torsten Bell is director of the Resolution Foundation.

This article is an extract from London Essays, a journal published by Centre for London, supported by Capital & Counties Properties. The full set of essays can be found here

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.