New styles of work and older urban designs

Penelope Trunk recently provided seven predictions on the future of work. Many will require changes to how people live in cities.  Old style sprawl will not allow for new styles of working.   Here I’ll address her first two predictions:

The end of gender disparity
Pay is equal for men and women until there are kids. This inequality will change when Generation Y starts having kids because the men are committed to being equal partners in child rearing. We see already that among Generation X men and women are willing to give up pay and prestige in order to get time with their families. Generation Y’s demographic power will provide critical mass for big change.

The end of the stay-at-home parent
Women have already widely rejected the idea of sacrificing their time with children to a relentless, high-powered, long-houred job, and men are following suit. Women have also found that staying at home with kids all day is boring. Institutions are responding – finally — to these trends. Parents will choose some form of shared care. Each parent will work part-time and take care of kids part time.

These predictions and observations will require many families to abandon suburban life for a more urban existence. The suburbs evolved when one parent working outside the home was the norm. The other parent could then dedicate herself (or occasionally “himself) to getting the kids to schools and other activities, as well as looking after them at home. If the working parent had to commute 60 minutes each way, that was considered acceptable to have a large back yard and a white picket fence.

In order for both parents to share care and have careers, they’ll need to live in proximity to their employer or clients (for the self employed). Although the internet and mobile technology allows for some types of work to be done anywhere, face to face communication is usually essential some of the time. It builds trust, is part of networking, and is required at least occasionally for effective collaboration.

Having a home in a distant suburb makes it harder for two parents to blend work and family life. If you live 10 minutes from downtown (or a major employment area) — or live downtown — it’s easier to get away for a one hour meeting, which will only cost you 1 hour 20 minutes of time. If you live 60 minutes from downtown, a one hour meeting will cost you 3 hours, two of which will be fairly unproductive if you’re driving in traffic.

For those who need to make regular appearances at an “office” (or the equivalent there of), living close to work and the kids schools means that you can zip home in a few minutes if there is a problem or dash to the school to attend a concert for an hour. It also means less time wasted commuting and therefore more time with your kids. Plus, when it comes to negotiating flexibility — such as an option to work from home occasionally, or to work in the evening in return for having a shorter day at the office — it’s more workable (and an easier sell to employers) if you can get back quickly in an emergency.

So, the future of work and the future of cities are interconnected. Of course, living in higher density areas will usually mean living in a smaller place — maybe a condo or townhouse and playing at the park rather than in a big backyard.

5 comments

  1. Dave Atkins says:

    I agree commute distance is a huge problem in the context of raising a family. But I think another evolving solution is what you’ve described as “Satellite Cities” or perhaps increased urbanization of what would otherwise be suburbs. I live in a town about 10 miles from Boston; I commute and my wife stays at home. With 2 dogs and 3 kids, we’re not moving to the urban core anytime soon, but I do not think of where we live as a true suburb either. I hope our town develops into a place where urban employers can locate and people like me will have the best of both worlds.

  2. Wendy, this is such an interesting observation you make. I talk about commutes all the time — how the inconsistent nature of them undermines our ability to feel peaceful on a day to day basis. But I never thought of the even bigger impact a long commute has on a family’s abiltiy to restructure parenting.

    One of the things I love about your blog is that you can take any topic and do a city spin. I love the surprises.

    Penelope

  3. Charles Rostkowski says:

    Urban living may be an improvement over the suburban commute, but in the city one is still at the mercy of the public transportation schedule. I work 16 blocks (they are typical Utah long blocks) from where I live. The bus I take to work comes every 15 minutes. It still takes me one half hour from the time I walk out the door to the time I clock in at work. So if I had to leave work to deal with children or some domentic crisis one hour of that time would be taken up with commuting. If I were driving, I could live 10-15 miles out and get home in the same amount of time. Especially since the crisis would probably occur mid day when traffic isn’t as dense. Public tansportation may save us but like every other solution there are trade-offs. As usual no one solution fits all and it’s a matter of where one puts one’s priorities.

  4. s c tan says:

    great blog!

  5. Wendy Waters says:

    Charles — I agree that right now in most US and Canadian cities’ public transit schedules are not that functional. But when I’ve visited or lived in other world cities, where most people don’t drive, it’s amazing how effective transit is. In Mexico City for example there is generally a metro or a micro bus or a larger bus going where you want to go. At busy times one leaves about every 60 seconds. In slow times (ie Sunday afternoon) about every 10 minutes. By contrast when I lived in Tucson or Ft. Worth public transit was about every hour. In Vancouver it’s decent if you live in the higher density areas like Vancouver proper, but poor in the suburbs.

    It’s all supply and demand. When drivers have to pay the true costs of driving (tolls on roads, higher gasoline prices, and maybe an eco tax on the gasoline), more people won’t drive as often.

    But I agree that we’re not going to eliminate the private car. Sometimes it makes more sense. I just see greatly reduced car trips – or miles per year per capita — in North American cities’ futures.

    WW