Chapter 1: The changing city

London Identities

Chapter 1: The changing city

At a time of re-urbanising economies internationally, London has been among the global leaders. The sheer number of job opportunities in the capital, and its educational, cultural and social scene, have made it a very attractive place for young people from across the UK and overseas. The city is a magnet for young graduates: half of working-age Londoners are university graduates, compared to one in three in 2004, 3 although the city is not as homogenous in terms of occupational class – many graduates work in ‘non-graduate’ jobs.

According to polling data, the proportion of Londoners who were born in London decreased from 58 per cent in 1977 to 52 per cent in 1987 and to 25-32 per cent today, depending on the survey. 4 Among the younger generations of Londoners ‘born and bred’, the majority have foreign heritage and many speak more than one language from a young age. 5London’s population turnover is considerable, but the rate is close to that of other major UK cities: ten per cent of London’s population move in and out of the city every year, when seven percent do in Greater Birmingham and Greater Manchester. 6

Life in the city has also changed markedly and offers new sources of shared identity. There are new London cultural institutions, the city’s public services have improved, and more people are using public transport. Since 2000, London’s mayors have been high profile politicians, acting as ‘first citizen’, and as a voice for the city. The mayors have sought to reinforce a sense of London’s identity via the public services they manage, for instance by developing a unified transport brand, based on the iconic London Underground style, for all modes managed by Transport for London. Public campaigns have also drawn on but perhaps also reinforced Londoners’ sense of pride – “Recycle for London”, “London needs you alive” (against knife crime), “Do it London” (to prevent HIV). Mayors have also regularly engaged with many of London’s communities, for instance through supporting Black History Month, Pride and cultural festivals.

Belonging to a city seldom requires being “born and bred” there. The London identity is, it seems, relatively easily and swiftly acquired. Like many migrant cities – and New York is the obvious example – Londoners have managed to create a strong identity for themselves.

Two men at London market

But London’s recovery has had an infamous flip side. Inequality of income in the capital is very high, and wealth inequality has widened – a characteristic London shares with other global cities. 7 Londoners know the city can be a tough place to grow up in, but living in the capital has become expensive to the point that fewer and fewer young Londoners can afford to buy in the area they grew up, or even in the city.

  • 3 Annual Population Survey.
  • 4 Harris Research Centre (1987). Life in London Survey 3/JN88703. Weighted sample, 2141 respondents.
  • 5 Since the early 2000s, the majority of babies born to London parents have had at least one parent born abroad; in 2016 it was two babies in three. Annual Births dataset. Department for Education (January 2017). Schools, pupils and their characteristics – local authority tables.
  • 6 ONS (2016). Population Estimates.
  • 7 Bosetti N., Sims S. and Travers T. (2016). Housing and Inequality in London. Centre for London.