July 29, 2010

Worries about multiculturalism go way back: in 883, fearing unrest, King Alfred banished the Danes from London. So when Leeds University researchers suggested that by 2051 a fifth of Britons would be from an ethnic minority, the reactions were predictable. The Daily Express’s full-page headline was ‘One in 5 Britons will be Ethnics’, complete with picture of women in burquas. Daily Mail readers also excelled themselves – ‘the only effective way to combat this situation is to vote BNP at every opportunity’ etc etc.

Let’s try and dig a little deeper. I’ve now read the (long and complex) report [pdf], so here’s a few thoughts. I’m not a demographer, so I’m focusing on the implications rather than the detailed modelling.


Britain has a long, often hidden history of multiculturalism. And as the report makes clear, Britain is already getting more culturally diverse. Immigration is a major driver, as is ‘natural change’ – variations in birth/death rates across social and cultural groups. The first tends to feed the second, since a share of migrants tends to settle.

British diversity is also heavily urbanised. People mix is greatest in and around cities, especially major urban centres (with big labour markets and good transport links) and ex-industrial places (which had lots of jobs in the past).

In some urban neighbourhoods we’re seeing ‘super-diversity’ appearing – with dozens of new communities alongside established minority groups. Conversely, recent migration from Eastern Europe was less urban [pdf] – partly because many people were doing agricultural work.


The researchers make three major predictions about Britain in 2051.

First, the UK will be both bigger and more diverse. Under their favoured model, the population grows to 77.1m, from around 60m today. Black and minority ethnic populations rise from 8% to 21%.

Second, diversity looks different. Essentially, super-diversity will be more common. The ‘other ethnic’ population will be 350% higher, with various mixed ethnic groups increasing by 148% to 249%. Chinese communities will over 200% larger, ‘Black African’ communities  179% larger, and the main South Asian groups 95-153% bigger. The model’s held back a bit here because UK Census categories are so crude.

Third, diversity will be more spread out. The researchers predict that people in minority groups will shift from more to less deprived areas, which (very roughly speaking) will take them from inner city to more suburban locations, and from larger cities to smaller towns and rural areas. That continues a long term historical trend – London neighbourhoods like Spitalfields have historically housed new migrants, who progressively shift to outer London suburbs as they become established in the UK.


The bigger question is what the economic and social impacts of a bigger, more diverse Britain will be. There’s some evidence, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, that fragmented countries are prone to conflict and poor governance. Conversely, diverse societies may be more inventive and productive. Given ‘where the diversity is’, a lot of the action will be happening in urban areas.

My academic work is looking at these questions in detail, focusing on British cities.  Here’s a recent working paper which fills two major gaps. First, with help from UCL’s Pablo Mateos, I’ve developed some new descriptive analysis, including a ‘Super-diversity Index’ which is more powerful than the categories used in the Leeds model.

Second, I’ve looked at the links between people mix, wages and employment in urban areas. I find some positive connections between super-diversity and my economic performance measures, suggesting higher diversity might be an economic good for British cities. Other papers and current research take a closer look at what’s behind this – more on those in the coming months.

One Response to “Super-diversity”

  1. […] of these trends will continue, with Leeds University researchers projecting a 20% minority ethnic population by 2051. But there is no obvious evidence that diversity is eroding national identity – 91% of […]

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