The US is both famous and infamous for its work culture. Many say that the DNA of this culture was set in 1620. English Puritans, not Spanish conquistadors, landed in Plymouth. They brought with them the Protestant work ethic. For them, work was worship. Even secular Americans retain a Puritan reverence for work.
American capitalism has further reinforced Puritan tendencies. In France, employees get six to ten weeks off every year. Paris empties out and beaches fill up in July and August. France also has a 35-hour workweek. Employees in Spain, Italy and Austria also have many weeks off. So do the famously hardworking German employees. Even the Anglo-Saxon British get four weeks off every year.
Working ourselves to death
The puritanically capitalist US is different. Employees get two weeks off—one of those weeks can be compulsory because factories shut down for a week—and many feel guilty when they do not show up for work. Goldman Sachs got into trouble for 100-hour workweeks. Some New York lawyers have been in the news and the subject of talk shows for 100-hour workweeks.
Of course, even the US pales in comparison to Japan. This is the country that gave birth to karoshi—death by overwork—that has since spread to other countries. Many Japanese salarymen working in big companies worked so hard that they literally dropped dead. When these stories emerged in the 1990s, most people dismissed it as a peculiar Japanese cultural phenomenon.
It turns out that karoshi is not peculiar to Japan. It has spread worldwide like cancer. In May 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published a pathbreaking report. They estimated that “long working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000.” The WHO and the ILO estimate that long hours at work might be responsible for about one-third of all deaths.
Apart from this report, news headlines about the perils of overwork abound. In China, workers at Foxconn facilities making iPhones for Apple were inconveniently killing themselves. Apparently, their profit-making masters were squeezing them to the point of suicide. Qatar was in hot water during the 2022 FIFA World Cup for its migrant worker deaths. Apparently, the country that has founded Al Jazeera was unable to turn the spotlight on migrants working under the blazing sun in its backyard. In Qatar’s defense, stories of terrible working conditions abound worldwide.
Rebellion from work itself
In 2021, a “lying flat” movement emerged in China. It was triggered by a post on Baidu in April. Titled “Lying Flat Is Justice,” this post went viral and discussions about tang ping—the Chinese term for lying flat—picked up pace in May, “as young Chinese, over-worked and over-stressed, weighed the merits of relinquishing ambition, spurning effort, and refusing to bear hardship.”
In fact, China’s Gen Z and its youngest millennials reportedly find increasing solace in tang ping. There is now a collective “antipathy toward working themselves to the bone.” The matter became so serious that Chinese President Xi Jinping was forced to condemn it. If China is to become the innovative superpower Xi envisions, then its youngsters cannot aspire to “living a low-desire, zero-pressure lifestyle without stable employment, while staying with [their] parents.”
This rejection of working long hours is not confined to China. Several young people in many countries are questioning the value of putting their noses to the grind. Even the land of Puritans has a new guru who champions less work. In 2007, Timothy Ferris published The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Unlike the once opium-smoking Chinese, aspirational Americans want not only to work less but also to get rich in the process.
Out go the 100-hour workweeks for suckers who go into banking and law, in comes leisure as a means of ideation and wealth generation. Ferris is now a cult guru for both dropouts and Harvard MBAs. After burnout thanks to 14-hour workdays, Ferris came up with a system in which he checked email once a day and outsourced small daily tasks to virtual assistants.
As the global success of his book demonstrates, Ferris might have a point. He has certainly hit upon a lifestyle of travel, reading, tango-dancing, secular preaching and global gurudom. Most of his followers and virtual assistants have been unable to achieve the same nirvana though.
What about a shorter workweek?
In recent years, a shorter workweek has been gaining attention. In 2017, Time published an iconic story based on the findings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The organization studied productivity in 38 countries. With the longest workweek, Mexico was the least productive while Luxembourg with a workweek of just 29 hours was the most productive. Many studies have since revealed long workweeks to be counterproductive in the long run. They lead to lower productivity, employee burnout and less innovation.
In 2019, Microsoft Japan revealed astonishing results of a summer experiment. In the country of karoshi, the Seattle-headquartered company tried a four-day workweek over the summer. Worker productivity shot up by 40% and, unsurprisingly, Microsoft’s electricity costs dropped by 23%. Surprisingly, printing dropped by nearly 60%, lessening paper wastage dramatically.
Perpetual Guardian, a financial services company in New Zealand, has gone a step further. Founder Andrew Barnes has declared the four-day workweek is here to stay. Barnes believes that a shorter workweek delivers better productivity. His company’s employees found stress levels drop and missed fewer days at work. No surprise that Perpetual Guardian says “employees sufficient time to think about how they can work differently” is important. Just as New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893, it might be pioneering a work revolution for the 21st century.while their stress levels and absenteeism decreased.
Change has come not only to a small idyllic island nation in the Southern Hemisphere but also a Protestant land close to the North Pole. Brath, a Swedish company, has shifted to a six-hour workday. It has helped them to hire and retain talent. Their employees are better rested and more productive. Furthermore, Brath’s profits have gone up too.
Iceland went a step further than Sweden and the government conducted trials of the four-day workweek from 2015 to 2019. More than 2,500 workers—about 1% of Iceland’s working population—were involved. In 2021, the government declared it to be an “overwhelming success.” Work-life balance improved, stress decreased and productivity increased. Now, Iceland has implemented the four-hour workweek. Even the much-maligned World Economic Forum (WEF) has come around to the idea of the four-hour workweek. At its 2022 annual gathering of the high and mighty in Davos, the WEF declared this idea to be “feasible and likely to be beneficial.” As Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once sang, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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