The shape of our cities reflects a period of industry and occupational change where white collar jobs quickly outpaced growth of traditional blue collar, black collar (mining and resources) and agriculture occupations.
In the post-industrial world, the office worker became supreme and the preferred place of work for many was an office tower in a centralised location. Workers shuffled to work in their droves at the same time each day, and shuffled home at the same time each night. We built extensive ‘hub and spoke’ transport systems, centred on CBDs, to support this pattern of employment. But if you think this describes how work will continue into the future, you’d be wrong.
Technology means that where once we relied on physical proximity for effective communication and networking, we can now rely on mobile devices that don’t even require a physical connection. Plus, that same technology is rendering huge swathes of the white collar class of worker redundant. Images of typing pools full of secretaries banging out correspondence are a stark reminder of how profound this change can be.
Change is the one constant and the pace of that change is accelerating. The fastest growing industries of the future will no longer be white collar but pink collar: health and social welfare. This includes professions from surgeons to GPs to nurses to child care or aged care, various therapies and counsellors, dental, and even laundry workers, cleaners and administrative support roles.
Already our biggest single industry, it employs more than 1.5 million Australians. It grew by over 20 per cent in the five years to 2015 and that rate of growth is unlikely to change going forward. Nearly half of everyone in this industry has a bachelor’s degree or some higher education qualification so they’re not all hospital cleaners – many will be skilled professionals.
This will be followed by the professional, scientific and technical services industry and very close behind that, the education and training industry. Construction, manufacturing (yes, still growing despite all attempts to kill it off) and accommodation and food services round up the top six biggest growth industries of the future.
This is important because the nature of growth industries of the future – and more particularly where they will be located – is going to reshape our cities in a very different way to the industries that grew with and shaped our cities in the past. This was highlighted in a recent report on employment in the growing region of South East Queensland, prepared by Macroplan for The Suburban Alliance.
This report demonstrated in stark terms how different industries will have different impacts on cities and create different patterns of workplace need. The health and social services sector for example – without argument the fastest growing of all – has one of the lowest levels of centralisation of any industry. The growth in this sector will mean hundreds of thousands of new jobs located outside the inner city, in suburban business districts.
The same applies to the education industry (another fast riser) and even when it comes to professional services, the era where these were concentrated in the inner city has already passed. Only 24 per cent of people who describe their occupation as “professional” work in the inner city. The rest are in suburban workplaces and growth in this industry sector is therefore likely to stimulate significant demand for more space in suburban business districts scattered across our metro regions.
How we respond to this likely change will be interesting. Much of our thinking around urban development seems to owe much to a sentimental view of what a city should look like: lots of high rise towers in one central location surrounded by suburbs and serviced by heavy rail. The nature of the growth industries of the future and the occupations that service them will, however, require a very different urban model: a multi-centred metropolis, all interconnected and possibly with an Uberised form of public transport using driverless coaches operating between centres. Choose your own image of the future, but I can guarantee whichever you choose, it won’t be what we have today.
Thankfully under this dispersed model, people should be able to live closer to their place of work. This is a vast improvement over the present, largely insane notion of putting all the high income jobs in one place and creating by default either impossible real estate prices (for those who want to live close to these jobs) or excessive commutes (for those who can’t), along with the impossibly high infrastructure costs associated with trying to recreate a version of Manhattan in Australian cities.
Hope springs eternal, but whether our planning regulations and political will are up to the task of thinking through how future work will reshape our cities, and what this means for existing land uses and densities in various suburban centres, remains to be seen.