De-industrialisation: a case study of Dundee, 1951-2001 – and its broad implications

March 28, 2019 | Blog
Home > De-industrialisation: a case study of Dundee, 1951-2001 – and its broad implications

by Jim Tomlinson (Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Caird Hall and City Square, Dundee (composite)
Dundee City Square and Caird Hall in summer 2014. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The huge loss of industrial employment – ‘de-industrialisation’ – has been one of the most important economic and social changes in Britain since the Second World War. But its timing, causes and effects are often misunderstood.

My study of Dundee, a typical post-industrial city, enables us to examine this process and to demonstrate important aspects of the process relevant to the whole country. The key messages, which I will present at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, are as follows:

  • De-industrialisation in Britain began in the 1950s: since then, the proportion of industrial jobs has shrunk from over 50% to around 15%, with the fall in manufacturing jobs even more dramatic.
  • De-industrialisation was greatly accelerated by the ‘Thatcherite’ policies of the 1980s, but the process began long before that date.
  • In particular, the ‘old staple’ industries, such as textiles, coal and the railways, lost more workers in the 1950s and 1960s than in the 1980s.
  • De-industrialisation was not mainly caused by the recent phase of ‘globalisation’.
  • The most important causes were technological change and shifts in patterns of consumption.
  • De-industrialisation doesn’t mean ‘we don’t make anything any more’; the trend in industrial output was upwards until the 1970s and roughly flat since then, but higher productivity means it takes far fewer workers to produces this output.
  • Most job losses arose from either long, slow attrition of employment levels in existing firms, or the slow growth of new jobs, not from dramatic, large-scale closures.
  • De-industrialisation matters especially because it has polarised the labour market much more into ‘lovely and lousy’ jobs; ‘lovely’ jobs are well-paid and relatively secure; ‘lousy’ jobs poorly paid and precarious.
  • The number of ‘lovely’ jobs, such as professionals, administrators, managers and technicians, has increased across all sectors of the economy, including industry.
  • The number of ‘lovely’ jobs has been particularly increased by the expansion of public sector employment, especially in health and education, and the numbers in these areas have barely been affected by recent austerity (unlike employment in local authorities).
  • Public sector ‘outsourcing’ has increased the polarisation of the labour market, as many of the outsourced jobs have been the low-skilled ones where public employment previously provided some protection against the impact of weak bargaining power.
  • ‘Lovely’ jobs commonly require significant educational qualifications, and average educational achievement has shot up in the period of de-industrialisation, especially in universities. Universities in turn have been a significant source of expansion of ‘lovely’ jobs.
  • The disadvantages of low educational attainment have been magnified by de-industrialisation, which makes access to ‘lovely’ jobs almost entirely reliant on high levels of attainment.
  • The transition from the dominance of industry has pushed many people out of the labour market, something that is evident not only in unemployment but also in much higher levels of long-term sickness and disability.


As a result of this transition, there has been a large increase in self-employment, much of which is poorly paid.