We shouldn’t worry about robots taking jobs in cities – but we should worry about the types of jobs they will create

Barnsley Town Hall. Image: Tony/Wikimedia Commons.

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 the new Centre for Cities report 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 per cent, 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.

To ensure this trend is not to repeated, we have to address the skills gaps holding back struggling cities, especially those in the North and Midlands. For the grandchildren of Lynne Williams, that means improving the access they have to good quality schools – of which there is a shortage in Barnsley – which will give them the skills they need for tomorrow’s labour market. For her daughter and son-in-law, it means better access to lifelong learning to make sure their 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 when the pits closed, rather than being offered retraining. (Barnsley has the eighth-highest share of 50-64 year olds that have no formal qualifications.)

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.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities, whose latest Cities Outlook report is published today.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.