Alibaba founder, billionaire Jack Ma, kickstarted an old debate on work-life balance after a recent speech to his employees in China where he sermonised, “I think it is a huge blessing that we can work 996.” For the uninitiated, that’s 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, a grand total of 72 clocked-in hours. So, according to Ma, the rest of an individual’s life, child-rearing, chores, commute and so on must magically fit into the other half day. Ma’s personal wealth is 3,960 crores in dollars and clearly, nobody amasses a fortune like that by being a slacker. One must also admire his zeal for business while noting cynically, it is, indeed, a blessing for Ma that the harder he drives his team by setting these standards, the richer he gets. The founder’s expectation, however, that his employees (rather, slaves) would be as motivated as him for a measly cheque at the end of the month, was not well-received, igniting an uncomfortable conversation on the unbridgeable gaps between owners and employees.
No doubt, people tend to view the world through the prism of their own experiences and choices. Perhaps Jack Ma truly believes that humanity has been put on this planet to toil mercilessly like he did, to set up a humongous conglomerate, on the sweat of the millions of human cogs-in-the-wheel that China provides. Of course, the gruelling schedules in these companies benefit the larger population and I personally wish Jeff Bezos a very long life every day, since his maniacal devotion to Amazon has made my life so much easier. Super achievers and empire builders throughout history have all, somewhat, fetishised work and exhibited this kind of passion. Tesla founder Elon Musk, who pretty much had a nervous breakdown last year, said he worked 120-hour weeks but agreed it was too much, and so recommended 80 hours for others. In his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell came up with the theory of the 10,000-hour rule for the key to success in any field: practice a specific task for 20 hours a week for ten years to be excellent at it.
Unfortunately, the impact of these ideas and the companies these robot-like heroes have created have influenced people into believing that this is the only success narrative worth pursuing. The culture perpetuates the myth that work is worship. In our world, crazy busyness is a badge of honour and a perfectly respectable way to live. The truth, however, is that ninety per cent of the population is not wired like how Alexander the Great was, who allegedly “wept as he gazed at the breadth of his domain because there were no more worlds to conquer”. Most of humanity is perfectly happy going home after a day’s work to another life, with children or friends or a good book. For example, for the thousands of employees in Alibaba, or wherever, who don’t have even a millionth of a chance of accumulating a fraction of the Founder’s wealth (and in all fairness lack the wherewithal and skill), is it really worth their while to work themselves, if not to death, to the exclusion of everything else that makes life beautiful?
To expect that kiThere can be a rich life outside of worknd of commitment without adequate spoils from the business, is a reminder that any debate on work-life balance is anyway only about those minuscule few who have the financial security to prioritise leisure. Most peoples’ lives are too precarious for them to be able to contradict these behemoths successfully. It is a sobering thought about the future of the workplace, to imagine the kind of power companies like Alibaba and Amazon — that provide stable employment — may wield. With AI and automation, jobs are already getting scarcer and it will be an employers market in the years to come. If there’s pressure from the top for workers to engage 996 and the opportunities are limited, the chances for exploitation are rife. It’s a pity that students are not urged at a young age itself to think about what kind of work- life balance they envision for themselves. If people identify early that these invented traditions of workaholism, or a quieter, more frugal life, is or isn’t for them, choices become so much clearer. It’s always good to plan and dream, what works out eventually, is a different matter.