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7 min read

The 9-to-5 workday is obsolete

The 9-to-5 workday is obsolete

Robert Owen, one of the pioneers of urban socialism, coined the phrase, “Eight hours' labor, eight hours' recreation, eight hours' rest." Can the world break free from this regimented schedule?

Anyone with a daily rush-hour commute already knows what it costs to share a city with millions of others. Whether you're stuck in traffic on the highway or crammed against other people on the subway, most of us begin our days battling a city infrastructure that has reached its peak.

The solution most cities use to tackle this issue is to add more: more lanes, more trains or more buses. But ironically, this makes the problem worse. Following “induced demand," expanded highways lead to an even greater amount of cars on the road, which puts even more strain on cities and the populations trying to navigate through them each day. Rail systems fare better, but even one signal malfunction could force all that train traffic to come to a screeching halt.

But outside of peak hours, multi-lane highways do nothing but take up real estate that could be used for much-needed green spaces or housing. And anyone hoping to use public transport to get home after hours could expect lengthy waits - if their local transit system is running at all. Cities spend millions on expanding infrastructure for an inelegant solution that's only used to capacity roughly 20 hours a week.

Of course, rush hours are a symptom of a culture that's still largely structured around the idea that a person's productive hours fall between 8am and 6pm, but it's far from the only option.

If you need to go to the bank, the doctor's, or the post office on a weekday and hope to squeeze it into your lunch hour, you have to factor in the time you'll wait in line between everyone else with the same idea.

Likewise, movie theaters, parks, and other recreational locations sit mostly empty most of the week, only to have to deal with large crowds on the weekend. Following that thread, those businesses still need staff on hand to accommodate the few people they will serve during off-peak hours - not to mention the night watchmen or other security who patrol empty buildings.

By packing so much activity into the same 10 hours a day, businesses and people are conditioned to see the other 14 as a time when productivity isn't possible. As much work as urban planners have devoted to more evenly allocating spatial resources among a city's inhabitants, even greater efficiency may be achieved by restructuring a city's temporal resources.


RIP 9-to-5

For better or worse, much of modern work culture is already pushing people off-peak. Most new jobs are in the flexible gig economy. Even people in 9-to-5's have seen their hours stretch from 8-to-6 and follow them out of the office on their laptops and phones. Proposals to reduce the work week down from 40 hours have popped up around the world, as have cases for alternate 4-day or other weekly work schedules. But without staggering these alternate schedules, we just change when rush hours are rather than eliminate them completely.

It's strange to consider how we ended up with the idea of a 9-to-5 in the first place. Human biology results in some of us being morning people while others don't hit their stride after sundown. By giving people the ability to work to their own schedules rather than hold everyone to 9-to-5's, we can ensure that people are active when they naturally feel their most awake and productive.

Off-peak, on point

Cities and businesses already experiment with incentivizing off-peak lifestyles, most obviously through reduced off-peak commuter transit ticket prices. Movie theaters will commonly offer cheaper tickets for matinées, and almost every casual restaurant in the world has an early-bird special for those eating between lunch and dinner. Right now, the rewards – in the form of lower prices and personal space – of living off-peak are hoarded by the few whose lifestyles allow it, but they can be more fairly apportioned.

Cities have already noticed the benefits of large-scale time redistribution, granted, mainly under extraordinary circumstances. After Hurricane Sandy, New York state instituted odd-even gasoline rationing — allowing cars to fill up on alternating days depending on their license plate number to conserve resources. Other cities, mainly in Latin America, have similar road space rationing schemes to curb congestion, demand, and pollution. We should recontextualize everyday rush hour traffic, seeing it as an emergency and failure of the system rather than an expected side-effect of it working. Proposals like congestion pricing treat the symptom without touching the cause. Nobody wants to become traffic, the problem is that their shared 9-to-5 schedules force them to be in the same place at the same time as everyone else.

A true 24/7

A world without the 9-to-5 means a place that could truly be available to everyone 24/7. Under the expectation that every hour is a possible business hour, companies would have to create jobs to fill the newly-opened shifts. You'll never have to worry about just missing the window on going to the bank or post office. Barring breakdowns of infrastructure, you could expect a regular transit schedule or commute time most times of the day.

You wouldn't have to worry about calling for service or support outside of working hours in case of a product malfunction or emergency, especially should those calls be to a different time zone. If you were feeling peckish at a weird hour, you wouldn't have to rely on fast food, which is often the only option open 24/7 today. While jet lag would still biologically exist, it could be more socially acceptable to sleep it out rather than immediately force yourself to adjust. There would be no reason, natural nor societal, why you couldn't enjoy a stroll through a park on a Tuesday afternoon, a museum tour at midnight on a Wednesday, or a steak dinner on a Friday morning.

Having more time in the day could make it so we could all afford to take everything a bit more slowly rather than trying to squeeze everything in the same 10 hours as everyone else.

Of course, if the goal is to ultimately get more people off the roads, then cities shouldn't stop at just moving them around the clock. A 24/7 city should be equipped with a robust public transit network that allows every resident to travel anywhere in the city at any time, without long waits or delays. To find out where people want to go, and what times they want to be there, HERE offers powerful public infrastructure solutions.

Noah Waldman

Noah Waldman

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