Mark Erickson

1979 was the pivotal year in the post World War 2 UK for employment and employment relations. Many commentators will cite 1979 as being the beginning of neoliberalism in the UK, with the new Conservative government bringing in ideologically-driven policies to reconfigure the relationship between state and society. We can still feel the effects of this today in the form of the legacy of public service privatizations (water, energy, telecoms, housing) and a shift in societal attitudes towards more individualist and consumerist positions. Yet these seismic shifts have been underpinned by changes in modes of employment, the labour market, and industrial relations.

We should note four key transformations whose emergence can be dated to 1979, all of which are presaged in the Sue Sharpe Working Mothers archive. Firstly, deindustrialization; the demise of the UK’s heavy industries had already started but now picked up pace as coal, steel, shipbuilding and large-scale car production all went to the wall. There was an attendant steep rise in unemployment to peak in 1984, which remained high (above 7%) until the late 1990s (https://www.statista.com/statistics/280236/unemployment-rate-by-gender-in-the-uk/). Secondly, trade union decline. Trade union membership reached its peak in 1979 (13.2 million) and then went into a steady, and ongoing, decline (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy 2022: Trade Union Membership UK 1995-2021: statistical bulletin page 5). Thirdly, fragmentation of careers and an end to ‘jobs for life’ dramatically changed the experience of many workers in the UK, and saw the dismantling of historic occupational communities. Fourthly, the feminization of the workforce takes off in 1979 with women increasingly being drawn into full-time and part-time work, a trend that has increased year on year since 1979 (ONS 2019: 7). 

The long term changes to work and employment that started in 1979 are still at work today, and the consequences of these transformations are still not fully understood. Looking back to help us look forward is a vital task if we are to be better equipped for the coming changes that the UK labour market and workforce will face.