Limited local opportunities, expanded job markets and better value housing further from city centres are prompting more and more people to undertake longer commutes. Factoring in the career of a spouse or partner, slumps in housing markets making it difficult to sell or rent property, as well as issues impacting kid’s educations, commuting rapidly becomes the most viable option in a range of other poorer choices.
Whether by plane, car, train or any other form of transport commuting is consistently listed as one of the bug bears of modern life. Recent research in Sweden from Erica Sandhow at Umeå University, on the impact of commuting, suggests that 45 minutes could be considered a long commute. However, in the US a typical commute would be 50 minutes while the British commuter spends 200 hours a year getting to work. Although there are a number of benefits from an increased number of career opportunities, there are also significant downsides, with Sandhow suggesting that couples engaged in commutes longer than 45 minutes are 40% more likely to get divorced.
Just the mildest of enquiries in my social circle produced the feeling that long distance commuting is more commonplace than these stats would suggest. In fact most believed that average commutes are taking increasingly longer as congestion is most towns is rising and 45 minutes elapsed time door to desk was actually on the light side.
Yet many choose to commute not into their local city, but internationally.
During a recent trip out of Malpensa airport I found myself in conversation with an Italian gentleman, Fabio, who was negotiating the security line with all the frequent flier finesse of George Clooney in “Up in the Air”. He works in international business development for an Italian conglomerate and was headed, not the 25 minutes typical Italian commute down the road, but 700 kms back home to Brussels. Fabio was quick to let me know why he has decided to live apart from his family Monday to Friday.
“When I was offered a senior role back in Italy 3 years ago, it was a tough decision. On the one hand I had a great promotion but on the other I also had to factor in my wife’s career. She is British and an E.U. lobbyist, so needs to be Brussels based, as well as my children’s education. They are 16, 14 and 10 – so not great for the older ones to move. We speak English at home and the kids go to Belgian schools so they only have conversational Italian. So as I travelled 80% of my week at that time anyway – the logical solution was to find a pied à terre Monday to Thursday in Milan and commute between Belgium and Italy“.
I have been in that situation myself twice when my ex-husband commuted internationally, in the days before cheap flights and speedy boarding. It’s not easy. Fabio continued ” When I’m not on the road I can work from home but obviously I need to be in Milan a couple of days a week at least. Technology helps and I’m lucky that my General Manager is a results orientated rather than presence orientated manager, but when you run a team being visible and available is important.”
So what are the downsides as if I didn’t know already. “When flights are delayed or cancelled – that’s a hassle. My wife struggles sometimes dealing with my 16 year old son on her own and feels isolated. It means if she needs to travel for her own work we have complex childcare arrangements as we don’t have family in Belgium. Hikes in fares means that it’s high cost too. But overall it’s the best decision for our family“
Women super commuters
Erica Sandhow’s findings show that extended commutes primarily benefit the careers of men and also contribute to polarised gender stereotyping with women assuming a greater share of domestic responsibilities in the absence of the men, while their partners become the defacto more significant salary earner. I can certainly testify to that.
If a high number of super commuters are men, what about women?
I spoke to Hannah who commutes between Paris and Amsterdam, leaving 2 children on Sunday evening or Monday morning, with her husband Markus until Friday night. “Yes it’s stressful but you get used to it. I find that I have to separate my work and personal life, but as the main salary earner in the family, I have to pay the mortgage and the bills. I am 16 years younger than my husband and will have to work for another 18 years at least. I miss my kids probably more than they miss me and have some sad moments when I can’t make an event or something is going on in their lives which I can’t be there for. My husband wishes I had more time, especially if I ever have to work at the weekend”
At the same time, it is reported that those fewer women who do commute long distances gain new career opportunities and higher salaries – so there are some benefits.
But are they worth it?
So how long would you commute to work?