How Changing Economies Affect Local Communities

We’re in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution, and there has been considerable discussion about the pace and breadth of that change, and the impact it can have on people individually but also on communities.

A recent study found that many people in former industrial heartlands in England and Wales suffer psychologically from their loss of industry and status.

The study analyzed nearly 400,000 personality tests and found despite the bulk of the changes after the industrial revolution happening decades ago, the impact persists even today.  The authors believe this is largely due to selective migration, where certain personality types moved elsewhere, with this then compounded by challenging work and living conditions.

“Regional patterns of personality and well-being may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier, and the Industrial Revolution is arguably one of the most influential and formative epochs in modern history,” the authors say.  “Those who live in a post-industrial landscape still do so in the shadow of coal, internally as well as externally. This study is one of the first to show that the Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today’s psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales.”

Regional personalities

The researchers used data from nearly 400,000 completed surveys conducted as part of the BBC Lab’s online Big Personality Test.  The data was examined for evidence of the ‘big five’ personality traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness, before then hunting for various other characteristics, including altruism and anxiety.

The data was then broken down by region and analyzed alongside data to determine the industrial history of the area, including coalfield maps and male occupation census from the last century.

After controlling for a range of other potential influences, the researchers found significant personality differences among people living in areas where large numbers of men had been employed in the coal industry during the industrial revolution.

For instance, neuroticism was 33% higher than in the rest of the country, whilst both anxiety and depression were 31% higher.  Conscientiousness, meanwhile was 26% lower, with life satisfaction scores also some 29% lower than the average.

Why this occurs

The researchers propose that this has occurred due to two main culprits: migration and socialization.  They suggest that most of the people moving into industrial areas did so to try and find work and escape poverty.  In other words, they had high levels of psychological adversity to start with, and their new home did little to improve matters.

This impact would then have been exacerbated by the socialization of dangerous and exhausting labor from early childhood.  The stress associated with that would then be exacerbated by poor and crowded living conditions.

“The decline of coal in areas dependent on such industries has caused persistent economic hardship – most prominently high unemployment. This is only likely to have contributed to the baseline of psychological adversity the Industrial Revolution imprinted on some populations,” the authors say.

“These regional personality levels may have a long history, reaching back to the foundations of our industrial world, so it seems safe to assume they will continue to shape the well-being, health, and economic trajectories of these regions.”

Modern implications

So why does this matter today?  Well we’re in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution, with technology again set to disrupt existing industries.  A recent paper from MIT suggests that the same small towns mentioned above are likely to bare the brunt of any impact technology will have on the labor market.

The central hypothesis is that automation is more likely in roles with repetitive tasks playing a major part, and such lower skilled roles tend to be concentrated more in smaller towns than larger cities.

The researchers came to this conclusion after analyzing both what kind of roles and skills are most prevalent in smaller towns (and larger cities), and then what roles are most at risk from automation.  Big cities tend t disproportionately offer work for people doing cognitive and analytical tasks, which are harder to automate.  By contrast, smaller towns have a disproportionate amount of routine work, which is more vulnerable.

“Big cities provide greater opportunities for synergies among creative, highly technical people, and that’s why they attract them,” the authors say. “The other dynamic is that cashiers and waiters are less idle in big cities than small cities, so large cities need fewer of them in proportion to their size.”

The report is interesting because it tries to steer clear of absolute predictions on jobs likely to be impacted by technology and instead makes relative comparisons between regions.

“For us, the question is: How can we anticipate future changes, not just related to robotics but also machine learning, algorithms, chatbots, and voice recognition, which are going to disrupt people who are in white-collar occupations as well [as in blue-collar jobs]?” the authors conclude.

Hopefully the people of these towns are going to receive a bit more support than those of previous generations, but I don’t live in a great deal of hope.

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