London Essays – Issue 7: Work


Cities are fundamentally economic entities. They have their origins in the benefits that come from trade and the division of labour.

By Ben Rogers and Geraldine Bedell

Even today, for all its attractions as a centre of leisure and culture, London is first and foremost a working city. People decide to live in or near London in large part because it’s where jobs are to be found and money made.

Work is central to our lives. Our position in the labour market and our experience of it – what we earn, how we are treated, the status accorded to our role – has a profound effect on every aspect of our existence.

This edition of London Essays explores the changing face of labour in London.

As ever, we have tried to address a wide range of topics, but common themes have emerged. Many of the essays wrestle with the significance of new technology on London’s labour market. Charles Leadbeater opens the collection with an insightful distinction between thin work – repetitive and piecemeal, with little personal meaning to the worker – and thick work that has a larger purpose in our lives. Digital technology threatens to thin out the world of work, forcing more and more of us into the zero-hours contract gig economy. Mark Trent, a Deliveroo driver, writes about this economy first-hand: “I am an English graduate and musician, but my real passion is delivering food on my bicycle.”

In our interview, Ryan Avent suggests that unless we rethink our approach to citizenship, welfare, and employment rights, automation will increase worklessness and exacerbate inequality. Torsten Bell, on the other hand, doubts that automation will be the job-destroying monster often predicted, and argues that London is less vulnerable than other regions to automation. But he does agree that the capital has experienced a worrying increase in poorly rewarded and insecure work. Pay is down a shocking 13 per cent in London since 2009, compared to less than 7 per cent across the UK.

Anthony Painter is highly critical of London’s political and civic leadership – which, he argues, has failed to make a convincing case for devolving more power to the city, or to develop new thinking on the uses of power. Where is the discussion about a London social contract or debate about a London Universal Basic Income?

Antonia Bance explores some of the challenges and opportunities that unions face in our fast-changing, increasingly polarised economy. New kinds of workers in disparate organisations could benefit from organising, but have so far broadly lacked the means to do so. Kathryn Nawrockyi contends that discussion of workplace equality for women has focused on women on boards and other ‘white’ executive jobs – and that we need to understand and tackle gender discrimination throughout the London economy.

As Julia Bennett shows, there is one part of the London economy where ‘thick’ work very much survives. London remains an important global centre of craft activity. We need to make sure that its workers are not squeezed out by the cost of living and working in the capital.

It has become common to claim that modern ways of working demand new sorts of workspaces designed to foster creativity, collaboration and wellbeing. David Hills is sceptical and believes many of these innovations are simply reworkings of London’s older shared and creative workspaces.

Work is often implicated in the rising tide of reported mental health problems in London. Louise Chunn explores relations between work and mental health and worries that a range of pressures are making work a high-risk activity. But she also points to the difference that good, enlightened employers can make.

Peter Cheese and David D’Souza build on Chunn’s essay, arguing that London employers need to get better at recruiting and managing talent. Small and medium-sized businesses are particularly important here because they are where most Londoners work. Yet their approach to recruitment and people management is often casual. The Mayor is in a good position to raise standards, promoting both a fairer and more productive economy.

This edition of London Essays includes a new element in the form of a series of data visualisations, casting new light on commuting, agglomeration, income distribution and other aspects of life and labour in the capital. We are grateful to Tom Dilke and Tom Colthorpe at Centre for London for all the work that went into these. We are, as ever, grateful to Capital & Counties Properties PLC for their support.