Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: China

My South China Morning Post piece on 996 and the culture of overwork

Orchard Road

There’s a debate going on in China over 996, the practice of working from 9 to 9, six days a week. (Some very tired yet still imaginative writers have suggested that the next thing will be 007, working from midnight to midnight, seven days a week.)

996 has been a part of Chinese startup culture for a while, but recently people have started pushing back, especially after the CEO of Youzan, a Hong Kong-based e-commerce company, announced that he was going to demand the company adopt those hours in 2019. A couple weeks ago, a leaked internal email from JD.com combined an announcement of layoffs with an exhortation to fight for more work, “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” This came a month after another message that “asked employees to make ‘full contributions’ by working 12 hours a day at least five days a week.” More generally, it seems to be the case that as the economy starts to slow, and as tech companies have a harder time getting venture funding, etc., they’re trying to enforce longer working hours as a way of sustaining their valuations.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to add something to the debate, and so my piece on why 996 is stupid, and how and why companies should work 4-day weeks, is out in the South China Morning Post.

The recent debate over working hours at China’s tech companies hinges on a question: are long hours truly necessary, or are they simply exploitation?

Advocates of the 996 work schedule – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – say it places young professionals on a fast, steep learning curve, allowing them to unlock achievements they would have thought impossible. It shows companies which employees are most passionate about and devoted to their work. It is necessary for companies that want to do world-changing work. And in a highly competitive, always-on global economy and job market, long hours are the inevitable price of success.

Yet, every one of those statements is wrong.

I had originally written, “But to paraphrase Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, every one of those statements is wrong,” but I can see why they’d cut it.

Interestingly some of the debate in China over 996 has migrated to Github, interestingly, and it seems to have worried the government enough to get Github’s 996.icu repository banned in China. (Even more worrying, there are some reports that Twitter was blocking search results on 996, even for Western users.) Among Westerners following the debate, there’s an argument about whether this is something companies in the US and Europe need to emulate. Some make the case that Western companies need to double down on the workaholism, while Forbes contributor Stephanie Denning points out that for all its success, Alibaba seems less productive than eBay or Amazon, and James Stanier, an engineering VP for English startup Brandwatch, arguing in Medium that “We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home.”

Now back to writing the book, so I can really make the case for the 4-day week!

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposes a 4-day, 36-hour workweek

According to a story in the China Daily, “the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposed revising the national work schedule in 2030 to nine hours a day and four days a week.”

For a long time I thought that the 4-day week was mainly a Western, and particularly European, phenomenon, but clearly there’s more to it than that. I recently wrote about Japanese company Zozo and its 30-hour week, and there are a number of other Japanese companies that offer 10-hour, 4-day weeks for employees.

And of course, some of the most overworked countries in the world are in Asia, and they recognize that the costs are now outweighing the benefits. China shifted to a 5-day workweek in the 1990s, South Korea recently passed legislation limiting the workweek to 52 hours (with very mixed results), and the Japanese have struggled for years with this. So it makes sense that these experiments would be happening in Asian countries, too.

According to the Shenzhen Daily, the CASS has a pretty detailed timeline for how this would work:

China should experiment with a four-day (36 hours) workweek in large and medium-sized State-owned enterprises in East China from 2020 to 2025, the newly released report said.

From 2025 onwards, a four-day (36 hours) workweek can be implemented in certain industries in the central and eastern regions.

And from 2030 onwards, Chinese people should be able to take three days of rest for every four working days.

However, the China Daily article also notes that the comments on social media haven’t all been positive; in fact, the general reaction has been skeptical. Why is that?

The answer lies in their anxieties about an uncertain future. As capital gets increasingly more accumulated, ordinary workers, blue-collar and white-collar alike, face the sad and cold fact that unemployment is likely to rise. Many people face the risk of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence and automation.

That’s why many people are rather worried about their futures.

To solve this, the key lies in promoting the idea of “rest”. The right to rest and the right to labor must be protected together so that people can be more certain about their future.

Thinking about work and rest together. Now that’s an idea I can get behind.

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