The world of work

Industrial decline

At the start of the twentieth century, the industrial output of the United Kingdom was among the most significant in the world. Heavy industries such as steel making, coal mining and shipbuilding employed hundreds of thousands of workers. However countries such as Germany and the United States were beginning to overtake the United Kingdom with increased productivity resulting from more efficient industrial systems. 
By the time of the Second World War, many of the UK's once-great industries were losing money, so the Labour government of the late 1940s nationalised them, so as to rationalise production methods. This situation persisted for the next four decades. However, during this time, the nationalised industries continued to decline and manufacturers from new economic rivals, such as Japan and China, began to take an ever-greater market share.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher's government returned the nationalised industries to private ownership, believing that the only way they could survive was to become smaller and more efficient. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs and the once-mighty coal industry virtually disappeared. Many workers failed to find new jobs and their desperation and disillusionment was reflected in many texts, films and TV programmes. Those who were successful frequently had to work in very different jobs, such as the burgeoning services sector.

Trade unions

Trade unions developed in the nineteenth century to represent the interests of working-class people at a time when few of them had the right to vote. At the start of the twentieth century, they played an important role in the creation of the Labour party. Their influence within the Labour party continued throughout the century.
Miners during the General StrikeTrade union membership and influence grew significantly in the years before the First World War and the growth continued during the war years. In 1926, the trade union movement organised the first (and, to date, only) General Strike in UK history. It failed in its aims, and the government passed laws to restrict trade union powers.
Trade union influence was limited by economic depression in the 1930s and the Second World War in the 1940s. But their influence revived in the period of growing prosperity between the 1950s and 1970s, when many industries operated a ‘closed shop’ system, whereby union membership was a prerequisite of working there. This was a time of almost constant unrest between trade unions and employers. In the 1980s, the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher passed laws to limit trade union powers, which laws have continued, little changed, to the present day.

The rise of technology

The twentieth century was a period of unprecedented technological change. One consequence of this was that machines increasingly replaced people in many industries. In the car industry, for example, robots largely took over the process of vehicle construction. Trade unions tended to oppose such changes, as they resulted in many of their members losing their jobs. In the last quarter of the century in particular, trade union membership fell sharply and there was a marked reduction in the availability of jobs for unskilled workers.

Gender equality

Traditionally, women were less well treated than men in the workplace. It was assumed that they would have a husband to provide for them and that they would eschew developing their careers in favour of child-rearing. These assumptions were increasingly challenged and in 1970 the government passed the Equal Pay Act. Equal treatment of men and women in the workplace was also a requirement of the European Union, which the United Kingdom joined in 1973. There was a significant improvement in gender equality in the workplace following the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 but, in reality, many women continued to receive less favourable treatment.
Better education for women, higher aspirations and economic necessity resulted in a significant increase in the female workforce from the 1980s onwards. Progress towards women being represented at higher levels of management was slow, and workplace sexism was a constant factor for many female employees.
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