London's changing role as a world city in the twentieth century is reflected in the changing nature of employment in the capital. In 1900 it was the largest and wealthiest city the world had ever known, confident in its role as the governing, trading and commercial heart of the British Empire. It was also Britain's biggest industrial city, with a wide range of manufacturing trades and a growing consumer market.
A century later, London's docks had closed and it was no longer a major port. Most of its manufacturing industry had collapsed, and its population had been overtaken by at least thirty urban areas around the world. Yet London is still at the centre of the world's money markets with a thriving economy based heavily on the financial, leisure and service sectors, and with very low unemployment.
Nearly everything about the world of work in London has changed dramatically over the century, though it would be difficult to argue that every change has been an improvement. Far fewer jobs rely on purely manual skills, working conditions are generally far better and nearly every Londoner has, at least in theory, more leisure time than a hundred years ago.
People's expectations of work have changed. Staying with the same employer for many years is much less common, and despite reductions in the working week surveys show that most Londoners in fact work longer hours now than they would have done fifty years ago. Most people earn more but feel they have to work harder.
More people who work in Greater London live further away from their place of work than a century ago, and have a longer commuter journey than ever before. The rise of new IT based communication systems has in theory made the need to travel from home to workplace unnecessary in many jobs, but in practice London's roads and railways are more crowded than ever. In spite of this, surveys suggest that most people are happy with their work, have a high level of job satisfaction and are not seeking a life of leisure.
During the first half of the twentieth century the industrial jobs which had developed in the inner London areas around the City, just south of the river and above all in the docks and East End all remained. Many of them were poorly paid, such as the garment industry where large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe found employment. The docks could employ up to 30,000 men but it was often casual work with no certainty of regular income.
In the 1900s most working class Londoners still usually lived near their place of work, but the arrival of cheap electric tram and railway services made a longer daily ride to work possible. The first commuters were the lower middle class clerks travelling into the City, and here office employment grew rapidly, but the working classes also began to move out to the suburbs and to the new cottage housing estates built by the London County Council.
More women joined the workforce, especially after their experience in many traditionally 'male' jobs during the First World War. They were no longer confined to home-working, laundry and domestic service jobs, and were soon outnumbering men in office secretarial and shop work. The gradual transformation of the West End from a residential to an office, retail and hotel environment from the 1920s offered young women in particular a wide range of new employment opportunities.
The population of outer London, especially in Middlesex, grew more rapidly than ever before between the wars. These newly suburbanised areas were not just residential districts for middle class commuters. In west London along the new arterial roads like the North Circular and Great West Road new electrical, consumer and light engineering industries sprang up. Many of these were subsidiaries of American companies like Hoover, Gillette razors, Coty cosmetics and Firestone tyres. London's buses were built by AEC in Southall and overhauled in a large works at Chiswick. Ford opened a giant car factory at Dagenham in Essex to mass produce cars for the new suburban market; other new light industries opened up in the Lea Valley. These developments created thousands of new jobs and a huge geographical shift of London's manufacturing sector in the 1930s.
In the second half of the century work patterns in London changed again. The growth areas were the New Towns like Stevenage, Harlow and Basildon which offered new homes as well as new jobs to those wanting to move out of the bomb damaged city. After the war, office employment, including civil service and local authority jobs, grew dramatically. By the 1960s employers were being encouraged to re-locate outside London where costs were lower and the quality of life supposedly higher. Some traditional employment areas such as the London Docks closed down, and many of the manufacturing industries which had boomed in the 1930s declined or disappeared completely by the 1980s. London's manufacturing workforce fell from 1.6m in 1961 to just 328,000 in 1993, a devastating blow for those who lost their jobs.
The decline in manufacturing was more than matched by the growth of service industries over the same period, although this did not mean a skills match for the displaced workforce. Within the service sector, which includes transport, distribution, catering, the professions, health, education and public administration, the area of outstanding growth in late twentieth century London was banking, insurance and finance. Here employment tripled between 1964 and 1989. It was office work, and service industries in general, that maintained London's enormous earning power into the 1990s.
Throughout the twentieth century, London remained a magnet for people looking for work, both from the rest of the UK and overseas. Even during periods of economic depression, Greater London has had lower unemployment than elsewhere in the UK and more people have migrated to London than away from it. Heathrow Airport, established in 1946, became not only the world's busiest international airport but a city in itself which had to be serviced by a huge workforce and created a large number of related jobs and industries. London's growing attraction as a tourist and visitor destination with high quality arts, heritage and leisure facilities has also helped sustain the city and boosted its thriving cultural industries. Work in the city of 2000 was a world away from 1900.
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