The jobs that people do change for a host of reasons. In particular, there has been a long term shift since the ends of the 1960s from manufacturing to services. Now, post Covid, a further shift is coming and a Guardian leader encouraged a glance back to Harold Wilson for a guide of how to manage this change.
Looking at headline unemployment in the sixties, it was a steady (and acceptable) 2%. Looking deeper, falling demand for coal meant that around 250,000 mining jobs disappeared in the decade, yet this did not result in an increase in the unemployment percentage. It seems that new jobs were created and people moved. Of course, it wasn't as simple as that, but, with proper attention to re-training and the provision of income in the transition period, changes in employment can be managed.
Looking at employment in manufacturing over the long term, I was at first surprised by its ebbs and flows. On reflection it begins to make more sense. The graph in the ONS report starts in 1861, but I also have statistics from the earlier census of 1851. The largest manufacturing sector was textiles, which was the main but not the only thrust of the Industrial Revolution. It was though, at one million employees, smaller than agriculture with two million and the same size as domestic service. The role of coal in powering the revolution was crucial. In 1851, it employed two hundred thousand miners well below peak employment at the start of the Great War.
ONS sector analysis goes back to 1928 when manufacturing employed a quarter of all employees. This was two years before the total employment rate reached an all time low of just 61% of those between 16 and 64. The previous peak figure was 76% in 1872 and the subsequent peak of the same percentage came in 1943. Looking more closely at manufacturing, the interwar years saw the percentage share of manufacturing at around 25%. Post war, with the export drive, this increased to 29% through the fifties and sixties before falling back to 22% by the end of the seventies. The eighties witnessed as further fall to 15% with the nineties coming in at just 10%.
The ONS also gives figures for the value of output, and here manufacturing does rather better as the benefits of mechanisation are felt. Manufacturing output at the end of the sixties made up 30% of national output, essentially on a par with the share of employment. By the end of the seventies it had fallen to 23% and to 17% at the end of the eighties, just nudging ahead of employment. The nineties saw a fall to 15%, comfortably ahead employment.
David Edgerton, in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, makes the point that Britain's manufacturing success in the fifties and sixties was laudable; it was just that other countries were doing better. Today, even though productivity has increased, Britain still lags behind nations who have embraced technology more wholeheartedly. In 2014, the website Drives and Controls suggested that in terms of output, manufacturing was then producing as much as it had in the 1970s. The ONS report on which this article was based may be found by following this link.
The signs are good, with almost daily announcements of investment in leading edge technology, not least with British manufacturers of both electric and hydrogen powered buses.
Alexander Dennis and NFI Group