Traffic jams, overcrowded public transport, environmental issues, high energy prices, failing infrastructure, rising health costs and the quest for work-life balance; all sound familiar territory, the modern-day touch points in any of our hectic cities?

These are just some of what at times look like intractable issues facing many large cities today, they will be familiar to almost anyone living in Sydney, Auckland, San Francisco, London, Tokyo or Vancouver. In reality, across the globe these urban issues are all too familiar and there’s an urgent and universal need to find some innovative, long-term and affordable solutions.

Quick and lasting solutions that governments and city planners, facing falling revenue can fund. But first a little history looking at the origins of our current over stretched 24/7 and 9 to 5 world.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use of 24/7 was in a 1983, and not as many might think, an invention of the fast-paced internet generation.

However, the idea of a 24/7 society, at least a work focused society goes back even further to the late 18th century, when enterprises started to boost output from their factories and as a result working 10-16 hour days was normal, even expected.

These long work days weren’t sustainable so encouraged Robert Owen started a campaign to have people work no more than 8 hours per day.  His slogan was “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” 

However, it wasn’t until much later in 1914 that Henry Ford actually implemented the 8-hour work day and that changed the standards. To the shock of many other industries Ford also doubled worker’s pay and in the process resulted in Ford’s productivity increasing significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years.

Seeing this, others soon followed and an 8-hour day became standard.

Locally we were ahead of the trend because in Australia in 1856stonemasons at the University of Melbourne descended on Parliament House to push for an 8-hour working day. An agreement with employers for a 48-hour week followed and Australians gained a new 8 hour-day.

Subsequently on New Year’s Day 1948 the modern 40-hour week, approved by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court came into effect.

An 8-hour day, isn’t scientific, it’s purely a century old norm for running factories most efficiently. Now 104 years later in the internet and AI age are we ready to embrace a new work-based ethic of a 4-day week that might just have an even bigger society wide impact and also change the character and shape of our cities?

To some degree it’s already happening and it could well be argued that today’s hi-tech technology and AI, just like the arrival of massed produced technology to manufacture cars in 1914, might cause this change.

However, there’s another reality that may well have an equally society wide imperative for change and that’s population growth and urban density. In 1900 the world’s population was estimated at 1.6 billion and less than 30% of the population was then urban and living in cities, today our population is 7.7 billion and 55% of us live in cities.

Urban density has also increased from 17 person/Km2 to 51/Km2, that figure alone demonstrates why cities are facing a need for a major shift in planning, with technology helping to lead the way, as it enables much more flexible working conditions, because it’s the movement of people to and from work that creates many of our current urban headaches.

 What Might Benefit?

We know what’s familiar and at times painfully familiar, about the everyday reality of urban-living, and here’s a related idea, do you remember how you last felt when you had a 3-day weekend?

More time with the kids or friends, more time just to linger over a coffee, forget the traffic or getting a reliable train, the sheer luxury of extra time and even if that’s extra time to think, it’s a positive vibe. If this was all our normal week would we be happier? Would we be more productive? As individuals and as a society.

After our 3-day weekend and feeling all positive and productive just how might a 4-day week work, and what areas of our fragile urban environment and lifestyle would benefit, that’s apart from our local coffee shop?

While working from home has some of the benefits, it’s been a selective policy and usually confined to professionals and not applied to the entire workforce.

There’s a few immediate and outstanding areas that could benefit from a near universal 4-day week.

It would help ease traffic woes, we’d give the environment a boost, for those with kids, child care might be easier to arrange and less expensive, we could take on more education, get a spare lane in the local swimming pool, find a car park at the local shopping centre and use less energy.

Are these things we desire and would a majority of those of us working like a 4-day week? There’s some research that supports the idea from the USA and there are already some companies doing exactly this. Before looking at those examples, how might a 4-day week work?

Firstly, for employers, big and small and government services, there would be no backing away from the 24/7 idea, that it appears is with us to stay, a 24/7/365 world is with us now as a fixture, the world never sleeps. At least that is until AI and robots take over more of the heavy lifting.

In the US, a major recruiter asked Americans if they would swap a longer day over 4 days per week for a shorter 4-day week, 53% said yes, they’d prefer to work a 10-hour day than the standard 8-hours over five days. Only 15% were opposed to the idea. In this example pay would remain the same but there would be fewer work trips and the main up-side was seen as a better work-life balance especially for those with children.

Today almost 30% of American companies offer what they term ‘compressed working weeks’ and that includes Amazon. Although in some cases the hours worked are less than 40 hours per week and pay is reduced.

Here in Australia, we already work long hours, and there’s a huge amount of unpaid overtime work, perhaps that’s tied into the high cost of living and that includes the high cost of housing.

However, academics argue that we need to recognise that there would be enormous benefits to be gained from working a shorter week, both for individuals and our over-burdened health system, including better mental health.

While for companies and organisations they could use their productive assets and investments 24/7 and more sustainably, and even schools could have extended hours making greater use of public capital.

 Part two of this topic next week, will address how a 4-day week might directly impact property markets, including the possibility that more people could be encouraged to make the choice to live regionally, and so reduce urban pressures on our major cities.