In praise of idleness

Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire, thinks 12-hour work days are a “blessing”. Bertrand Russell thought four hours were plenty. Who’s right? Simon Wilson reports.


Jack Ma: long hours are not a problem
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2018 Shutterstock. No use without permission.)

What's happened?

Jack Ma, the richest man in China and founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, has put the issue of long working hoursin the spotlight with his contentiousclaim that China's "996" culture of extremely long working hours is "not a problem", but rather a "blessing".

The "996" refers to the practice ofworking 12-hour days (from 9am to 9pm) on six days a week. Such long hours are common among China's army of software developers (among many other classes of worker) and they are getting very irritated about it. In late March a group of anonymous developers used GitHub (the world's largest host of source-code, whichBeijing can't readily censor because it'sso useful to Chinese techies) to launchan anti-996 campaign.

The developers have named and shamed big tech firms that force workers to put in excessive hours that leave them exhausted and unproductive or, as Ma would have it, properly committed to the "happinessand rewards of hard work".

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But aren't we working fewer hoursthan we used to?

Yes, that's the trend. John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in his 1930 essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" that technological advances would free us from toil such that a century on (by 2030) we might each be working no more than 15 hours a week. Similarly, his near-contemporary

Bertrand Russell reckoned that if work were shared out equally the average working day would need to be just four hours. In his 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness" the great philosopher wrotethat such a well-organised, short working day would "entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life" leaving the rest of his day free for science, painting, writing and so on.

The result, he thought, would be a guarantee of "happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness and dyspepsia". (He didn't mention too much about who would be looking after the children or cleaning the bathroom.)

So how close have we got?

We might not have quite entered the Keynes-Russell nirvana, but we are working about half the number of hours of 150 years ago, and significantly fewer than 50 years ago (when we worked about 40 hours a week on average).

In the late 19th century, workers in industrialised countries such as Britain generallyworked 60 or 70 hours a week, or more than 3,000 hours a year in Jack Ma's996 territory. But a consistent long-term trend is that as economies get richer,people tend to work fewer hours. (That remains true of the UK, even though in the first half of this decade working hours ticked up, by about 3%, as the economy recovered from the financial crisis and recession.)

In the most recent year for which the OECD club of developed nations has compiled figures (2017), the average Briton spent 1,514 hours at work. Assuming weekends off plus 28 days paid holiday a year, that's the equivalent of a 32.6 hour working week. Looked at another way, it's equal to four working days of a length that Jack Ma would view as laughably lightweight (9am to 6pm with almost an hour for lunch).

How do we compare internationally?

We're moderate slackers, but not outrageously lazy. Of the 36 industrialised nations surveyed by the OECD, the number of hours worked by an average worker in the UK is a quarter of the way along the rangefrom low to high. The average forthe OECD nations as a whole is1,744 (a 37.6-hour week); both Japanand the US are pretty close to this figure.

The hardest workers are in Mexico(2,257 hours), followed by South Korea, Chile, Greece and Israel. The figure in France is exactly the same as in the UK, while the supposedly less work-inclined southern Europeans in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, as well as Greece all work significantly longer hours than we do.

By contrast, the biggest slackers are all in well-off northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden and Iceland all work a bit less than we do.And bringing up the rear, working a pleasantly relaxed 1,356 hours per year, are the Germans.

But aren't the Germans famouslyhard-working?

No, they are famously productive.The OECD data highlights a striking inverse correlation: as the number of working hours in a country rises, the labour output per worker-hour tends to fall. Germany is at the extreme end of that spectrum. A similar phenomenon is seen on the micro-level of the individual.A raft of academic studies has foundthat, after a certain point, working long hours is counter-productive in termsof productivity and performance.

This tipping point varies between 40 and 50 hours a week, and is hit earlier when the work includes long shifts of 12 hours or more. And at 48 hours a worker's output drops sharply, according to one recent Stanford study.

What about health impacts?

Equally, a vast body of academic research (for example, a 2004 meta-survey of the literature by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has foundthat working long hours (more than40 hours a week) is associated with poorer health outcomes. These include weight gain, higher consumption of alcohol and tobacco, higher risk of heart disease and stroke, and more work injuries.

There's nothing new about the realisation that working too hard is bad for you, of course. Adam Smith himself noted that the "man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantityof works".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.