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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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.