Posts Tagged ‘Economy and Society’

Britain’s older industrial towns are lagging badly behind cities, despite low unemployment figures

The reduction in UK unemployment since 2010 paints an overly positive picture of labour market trends in Britain’s older industrial towns, write Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill. They find that these towns – older industrial areas beyond the main regional cities – are becoming places where people live but work elsewhere, which is very different from their original role as centres of business in their own right.

The recent general election has pushed Britain’s older industrial towns higher up the political agenda. It was these towns in the North and Midlands that swung so dramatically from Labour to Conservative, giving Boris Johnson his parliamentary majority, and there is now an expectation that his government will do something for these places in order to try to hold on to them in future. Not least, the newly-elected Conservative MPs from these towns are certain to press for a local dividend from the government to help keep voters sweet.

In a newly-published open access article in Regional Studies we’ve looked closely at recent economic trends in Britain’s older industrial towns. In particular, we’ve tried to establish whether the historically low levels of unemployment now recorded in the towns reflects a recovery in their local economies or whether there is still a much deeper malaise.  The answer, perhaps not entirely surprising to those who know these areas well, is that the reduction in unemployment since the recession paints an overly positive picture of labour market trends in the towns.

Our research documents the changing levels of employment, population, national and international migration, commuting and labour force participation in older industrial towns since 2010, as the national economy moved out of the recession. The number of jobs in the towns has increased – it would have been astonishing if this had not been the case during a period of strong national growth in employment – but the rate of increase has been slower than in the main regional cities and far slower than in London, which really forged ahead over this period.

The fall in recorded unemployment in older industrial towns, which has actually been faster than the national average or than in London, cannot therefore be explained by local labour demand alone. It also owes a great deal to changes in labour supply, in particular to a rise in out-commuting to jobs in other places and to a local population with an excess of retirements over young entrants to the workforce. In older industrial towns, international migrants have also been a smaller source of new labour than in the cities.

There is little evidence in our findings that London’s impressive employment growth has been of any direct benefit at all to the labour market in the older industrial towns of the Midlands, North, Scotland and Wales. London’s growth has drawn in more commuters, but overwhelmingly from the rest of South East England. London’s growth has also drawn in migrants from elsewhere, but principally from outside the UK.

Our figures mostly stop at 2016, when polarisation between the cities and older industrial towns was becoming apparent. More recent data points to Britain’s cities and older industrial towns growing further apart and at an accelerating rate. New figures through to 2019, for example, show that in relation to the resident working age population the increase in the number of jobs in older industrial towns since 2010 (2.8%) was five times faster in the main regional cities (14.2%) and nearly six times faster in London (16.3%).

The inevitable consequence of this huge disparity in job growth has been a surge in commuting. In 2010, net commuting out of Britain’s older industrial towns (the balance between flows in each direction) was around 800,000. By 2016 this had risen to 900,000, and by 2019 to over 1 million, equivalent to one-in-seven of all residents in employment in the towns. By contrast, in 2019 Britain’s ten main regional cities had a net commuting inflow of just under 1 million, equivalent to more than a quarter of all the jobs located there. These figures point to a major redefinition of the role of Britain’s older industrial towns. Increasingly, they are becoming places where people live but work elsewhere: they are becoming dormitories for commuters to the big cities. This is very different from their original role as centres of business and population in their own right.

We should probably welcome the employment growth in the cities and their role in providing job opportunities for the residents of older industrial towns, thereby holding down unemployment in the towns, but whether this is a sustainable or desirable model of growth is deeply questionable.

At a purely practical level, it generates congestion on the road and rail network. Britain’s transport network was never designed to move vast numbers in and out of the main regional cities. The rail network away from London and the South East is skeletal at best and much of the rolling stock is unable to handle the demands placed upon it. The motorway network was built with long-distance travel in mind but around the cities it has become clogged with commuters. Journey times have increased significantly, even in the last five years.

The city-centric model of development is also incompatible with the green agenda. The growing dependence of the residents of older industrial towns on jobs in cities works directly against the aspiration to reduce CO2 emissions and is doubly damaging because most of the commuting happens by car, which is especially profligate in terms of emissions.

There is much pious talk about ‘inclusive growth’ but the long-distance separation of home and workplace that is built into the city-centric model of growth makes it too difficult for many people to participate in rewarding employment. Commuting into the cities may just about work for car owners in well-paid jobs but for those on lower incomes, for shift-workers, and those who work outside city centres public transport is rarely a practical option. For the residents of older industrial towns at a considerable distance from the nearest city – and there are plenty of towns that fit this description – commuting to a city is not even an option. The travel times are too great.

The message for Boris Johnson’s government is that Britain’s older industrial towns are indeed now lagging badly behind the big cities, and ministers should not be misled by positive unemployment figures. Britain’s older industrial towns need more jobs, and better jobs, closer to home.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Regional Studies.

About the Authors

Christina Beatty is Professor of Applied Economic Geography in the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University.



Steve Fothergill is Professor in the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


Young people and the post-crisis precarity: the abnormality of the ‘new normal’

Craig Berry and Sean McDaniel draw upon research with focus groups and an online community exercise to examine the attitudes of young people in relation to the apparent ‘normalisation’ of precarity in the post-2008 economy. They find that although young people recognise the abnormality of labour market conditions, they nevertheless fail to see value in conventional forms of trade union organisation.

The 2008 crisis crystallised the trend towards ‘precarious’ labour market conditions – stagnation in earnings growth, skills under-utilisation, labour market ‘hollowing out’, and the emergence of ‘gig economy’ practices – which disproportionately affect young people. Insecure employment is not new, especially in lower-skilled occupations, although it may have reached a new peak since the crisis. Indeed, two decades ago, Richard Sennett warned of ‘flexible capitalism’, wherein uncertainty and instability were becoming ‘woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism’.

However, today’s young people are perhaps the first cohort to have experienced the shift towards precarity on a large scale, across occupational groups. In a landmark 2018 book, the late Andy Furlong et al. refer to the spread of precarious labour market conditions in recent decades in the UK as a ‘new normal’, which has built up over decades and accelerated in the context of the crisis from 2008.

Yet the perspective of young people themselves has been relatively absent from academic debates on the advance of precarious work. Our research seeks to develop our understanding of this new normality of precarity by inquiring how it has been internalised into the attitudes of today’s young workers. Too often, young people’s understanding of their economic circumstances is assumed rather than investigated; or, a relatively politically engaged and media-savvy minority of young people is assumed to be representative of the cohort as a whole.

We conducted a series of focus groups with 18-25 year-olds (in Manchester, Grantham and London, supplemented by a nationwide online discussion forum) in October 2017. The groups had a mix of male and female, and graduate and non-graduate participants, with the exception of one of the sessions in London, which was composed of only graduates (this reflects our interest in distinguishing between different groups of young people – we must be careful not assume the young think, and act, as one).

We investigated their attitudes to work, the economy and, importantly, industrial relations. Drawing a link between wider labour market processes and young people’s attitudes to trade unions, we interrogated the notion of ‘normalisation’ itself by considering if, how, and why young people seek to operate and succeed (or simply survive) within this economic environment, rather than resist it (through, for example, forms of collective action).

We found that young people’s experience of the ‘new normal’ of precarious labour market conditions has been internalised within their attitudes to a significant degree. This does not mean, however, that changes have been accepted passively or unknowingly. Rather, there is a recognition amongst these people of the novelty of their socio-economic circumstances, and thus frustration and disquiet at the nature of these circumstances. The ‘new normal’ is in fact recognised as abnormal. There was clear anger expressed at the way in which current economic conditions of the post-crisis environment, including the legacy of the economic crisis and phenomena such as Brexit, have affected the life chances of young people.

Nevertheless, we also found, as others have, that young people feel that insecure labour market conditions are simply ‘part and parcel’ of the economic order they expect to confront throughout their lifecourse. This attitude means they focus on how they can succeed within this inherited structure rather than on pursuing structural change. There is a degree of resignation to a situation wherein precarity is deemed largely immutable. Accordingly, it seems many young people understand the prospect of improving labour market outcomes in terms of personal development and their ability to successfully navigate this more competitive environment (an attitude also identified elsewhere). (We found some attitudinal differences between graduates and non-graduates, with the former more concerned about unmet expectations from their career, for instance, and the latter more concerned by general degradation of economic conditions. Yet these are differences of degree rather than being fundamental in nature.)

Our research shows that antipathy towards trade unions (even if trade unionism is conceived in fairly positive terms) can be associated with this perspective, insofar as membership is not deemed particularly helpful to young people plotting their career while navigating precarious labour market conditions.

Most participants reported that they wanted trade unions to craft an offer more resonant to their individual ambitions for their careers – and were unaware of services offered by unions which might already be meeting this need. They were not particularly interested in being represented by trade unions in the workplace – with some young people particularly critical of unions seeking to represent members’ interests via political engagement, reflective of a wider ‘anti-politics’ sentiment (our fieldwork was conducted just after the so-called ‘youthquake’ election in 2017).

Of course, if young people lack knowledge of trade unions, it is perhaps because the information they are presented with is not deemed salient to their experience of industrial relations. (We detected few differences between graduates and non-graduates regarding specific views on trade unions; interestingly, there were few, if any, explicit suggestions by participants that there might exist social class-based divisions within age cohorts.)

Overall, the 2008 economic crisis underpins much of what young people believe about the economy and their own place within it – investigating the impact on crises on generational identities is an area where further research would be especially welcome. This sense of injustice among today’s young people – dealing with a crisis they did not create – has been compounded by the Brexit vote, which young people report has created manifold uncertainties for their future lives. Our research reveals therefore a relatively strong sense of age-related identity among today’s young people in which, rightly or wrongly, they believe their political and economic experiences are unique, or uniquely difficult, compared to recent cohorts. The long-term implications of such a perspective for industrial relations and political participation – and how progressive political actors might seek to accommodate it – remain uncertain.


About the Author

Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Economic and Industrial Democracy (open access basis). The original research was funded by Unions21.

Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University.




Sean McDaniel is Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


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