Downton Abbey-style employment makes a modern-day comeback | Larry Elliott | Business

Christmas Day telly has not been quite the same since there stopped being a Downton Abbey special to savour. For many families, it was part of the yuletide ritual to watch the soap opera centred on the lives of the Crawley family and the servants who waited upon them.

Downton was an idealised high-Tory view of the world. The aristos – Lord Grantham in particular – were paternalists, seeing it as their duty to look after the people they employed, provided they worked hard and knew their place. There was harmony between rulers and ruled; devotion to duty was rewarded; wrongdoing punished. It was David Cameron’s big society in microcosm.

In some ways, it was interesting to consider the passing of a world that had ceased to be: a Britain of cottage hospitals, white-tie banquets, shooting parties and rich families shuffling between big houses before they were given over to the National Trust. But even more fascinating was to watch Downton and see what hasn’t changed. And the reality is that in the past few decades, the pattern of employment that featured in Downton has made a comeback.

Few people these days employ valets, ladies’ maids and grooms. There are very few butlers like Carson knocking about, with a big below-stairs staff to boss about. Instead, today’s wealthy have cleaners, personal trainers, nannies, gardeners and dog walkers. The modern equivalents of Lord Grantham and his family are the financiers running hedge funds and the in-demand City lawyers who are income rich and time poor. They can afford to employ a modern servant class to do their domestic chores and look after their personal needs. The only real difference is that – for the most part – the servants live out rather than under the same roof.

This is the flipside to Britain’s full-employment labour market. To be sure, jobs are plentiful and the proportion of the population in work has never been higher. It is a proud boast of the government that unemployment has not been lower since Harold Wilson was prime minister in the mid-1970s.

But that was a different world. Jobs back then tended to be full-time; workers were more likely to have the protection of a trade union; manufacturing accounted for a bigger slice of the economy and paid well; owners of companies earned 10 times as much as the worker on the shop floor, rather than 200 times as much. There were no zero-hour contracts and there was a more equal balance between labour and capital.

The idea that the labour market would again be dominated by low-paid domestic service jobs would have seemed unthinkable. Those readers with long enough memories might be able remember a series called Upstairs Downstairs. It covered the same themes and the same period as Downtown, but when it ran from 1971 to 1975, the assumption was that the world it depicted was never coming back. Now it has.

The cast of Upstairs Downstairs

When the TV series Upstairs Downstairs ran from 1971 to 1975, it was assumed that the world it depicted was never coming back. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

The 70s were a pivotal period for Britain. From a labour-market perspective, they lasted for 16 years; between 1969 – when the trade unions saw off Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife – to 1985, when the miners accepted defeat after a year-long strike.

In the intervening period, some big shifts occurred: from an economy dominated by manufacturing to one dominated by financial services; from a country where the gap between rich and poor had gradually been narrowed to one where inequality was rising rapidly; from a world where living standards rose because real incomes were growing to one more dependent on house-price inflation and debt. The power of trade unions was curbed by mass unemployment and legislation.

This was when modern Britain was born. Warehouses and call centres eventually replaced the pits and factories. The City grew in size and influence. The centre of gravity of the economy moved southwards. London established itself as the world’s premier financial centre. The rich – including those attracted to Britain from overseas – became a lot richer. Part-time work increased as the percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements fell.

The reason Upstairs Downstairs seemed like a different world in the 1970s was that technological innovation and public policy had brought about big changes to the labour market. In the 19th century, the bulk of the population worked on the land and, as now, there were fears that mechanisation would lead to mass unemployment. What actually happened was that people left low-paid jobs in the field for better-paid jobs in factories.

After the end of the second world war, there was a sharp decline in the number of people employed in service. There were other more attractive jobs on offer; full employment meant rich households had to pay their staff higher wages; an array of labour-saving consumer goods such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners meant fewer servants were needed.

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However, over the years there has been a bifurcation of the labour market between those working in high-skill, high-wage sectors and those working in low-skill, low-wage sectors. Artificial intelligence will, unless carefully managed, widen the gulf still further.

If history is any guide, the coming industrial revolution will create more jobs than it destroys. But it is by no means certain that the jobs being created will be better paid than the ones being destroyed. The opposite will be the case if machines take the place of workers in relatively well paid, if routine, occupations, with the latter then forced into lower-paid jobs in the services sector.

And that will be a risk if trade unions remain weak, redistribution is shunned and the owners of the machines capture all the financial benefits. Then, Britain’s Downtonisation will be complete.

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