The work-life balance concept, revisited


overwork

I can describe a friend of mine, Becky, as a very astute, and emotionally deliberate, observer. Taking a picture inside Central MTR station, precisely during the typical daily rush-hour evening, she put out the words ‘all the people on this planet working nine-to-five (six here) to stay alive‘. The station, as crowded as ever, is filled overwhelmingly with employees rushing in and out of the station, and the escalators are almost completely full. In all directions to the station’s exits, the loop plays over and over again.

And a few days before, as though being in an existentialist mode, she blogged about this:

 

How did we evolve from living our lives to working to live?

How did we invent the notion that working is so unpleasant that we have to balance it out with life? Most jobs require 9-to-5 working hours, and multiplying those hours by five days a week. These working hours exclude commuting and overtime, which implies that we spend more time working as opposed to ‘living’.

And if the majority of the world works 9-to-5 to stay alive…

How did we stop living?

 

She comes in to this topic with an emotional thought, and I am here to complement it with some facts.

The ‘9-to-5’ working concept, in this regard, is an ideal American business tradition. While this working standard has been internationalized to a majority of countries across the world, there remain disparities between countries in regard to average annual working time per capita. Statistics from OECD (and for OECD countries alone) account for a huge deviation. Mexicans, on average, work over 2,200 hours per year. On the other extreme, Germans work ‘only’ slightly less than 1,400 hours. Greeks, among the world’s most indebted nations, work over 2,000 hours a year. Does working more indicate higher incomes or higher productivity? Research doesn’t find any correlation. Mexico’s GDP per capita stands at slightly lower than 12,000 US$, while Germany’s is approaching 45,000 US$. This excludes numerous other variables that can further disrupt this pattern, such as inequality, extent of human capital investment, rate of education attainment, hourly wage level, etc.

In reality, the truth is more complicating. Can we replicate 9-to-5 model to the rest of the world? To some extent, it’s possible, only if there are sufficient guarantees from the workplace to limit working hours. That’s why it’s lucky to be a government employee; your working time starts at 9 am, and it ends at 5 pm. But what about factory workers? What about street food sellers? What about contract workers? And what about people in poor countries, who, oftentimes, have to work more than 100 hours a week in 2-3 different occupations not only to stay alive, but also to survive? Given that most of the world is located in the developing world (every 6 out of 7 persons in this planet lives in this area), this model may not be completely universal.

Even being in a working environment does not necessarily mean one will be on a fully-working mode. A government employee may still be inside an office reading newspaper, while the clock shows 11 am. A company employee may just sit in front of a computer playing games, if there are no promising projects around. A restaurant owner may sit for two continuous hours, and there are still no customers. A street seller circles round a city or a small town, and may not find any buyers after an hour or two. Are they employed? Yes, they definitely are. But does it mean they are working? Not necessarily. This possibly can explain why ‘longer working hours’ do not bear correlation with increase in income or productivity level.

From another perspective, there are people who are so embedded, or simply conditioned (trust me, most of them won’t like it), in their working activities that they equate them as their own ‘lives’. Mostly, this is not because this is the job they want to do; a bigger, sometimes more meaningful, cause underlies their motivation to do it. Millions of migrant workers across the world are a typical illustration; leaving their families and their beloved ones behind, they work overseas, oftentimes in almost slave-like conditions, in order to earn hard-gained incomes to be remitted back to their families. We have seen a lot of examples in Hong Kong. Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers, once in their weekends, will gather with their fellow friends, sitting in any public squares, and sharing stories about their families, newborn babies, and exchange jokes or sarcasms about their employers. High-income employees, such as investment bankers, traders, and other professionals, sometimes are also faced with such conditioning, but with greater distress, work pressure, and more competition. My cousin, as an example, has been working in most Big Four accounting giants in Hong Kong for over 5 years, and she oftentimes still works until beyond 2 am in the morning, or continues analyzing reports in her house during weekends (blame the absence of working-hour laws in this city).

The question now is: does working 9-to-5, or working up to 100 hours a week, make people lose the notion of ‘living our lives’? Again, it’s a matter of perspectives. Some people enjoy competition and have unending ambition, and thus 9-to-5 schedule may not be sufficient. On the other hand, we see versatile people who can do a lot of different tasks in less than 7 or 8 hours a day. Then, there are also individuals who don’t find excitement working in cubicles, but rather outdoors. Unfortunately, for the rest, financial and economic pressures often force people to work overtime. Ironically, to some degree, it is from such condition that they discover ‘life’. Thus, there is never a single, coherently universal answer to that question.

Another more complicating reality here is the growth in inequality. As long as it is controlled, inequality is actually a healthy indicator of economic competition. What is happening right now (and if one reads Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century) is that capital income is growing faster than labor income. Despite the tremendous growth of a global middle class, it also raises the discrepancies between the haves and have-nots. Wealth stock, globally, is increasing rapidly, but it also takes place in proportion to the increasing concentration of capital ownership among only those in better-positioned socioeconomic levels. As both world population and economy growth are slowing down, there is less focus on investment, but rather on either increasing savings rate or consumption. And then there are all these disruptive technologies, such as AI, robotics, automation, Internet-of-Things, machine learning, etc. While people are engaged in more job competition than ever, these technologies can disrupt labor market in the not too distant future (most likely in the next 20-30 years). Just imagine that you don’t need to have your documents bureaucratized through these government employees, or that drones can deliver vegetables and other dishes without any deliverymen, or that ‘smart’ cleaners can do housecleaning more efficiently than using real housemaids. One may ask: what are these people going to do without those occupations? Explaining the entire question itself will require me to write another post (which I may not do so in the near future). In a current mindset, nonetheless, we can assume that a person will either struggle to find a job or be willing to work really long hours to ‘survive’, unless there is a wholly brand-new modeling that can be adapted to future situations and offset some disadvantages that people are currently facing.

To sum up, there are both negative and positive implications with these shifting trends. For most of the world (and indeed most of the developing world), people are still very likely to continue working with the current patterns. From the negative aspect, disruptive technologies can cause job losses (to which extent they are lost remains largely a question), and exacerbating inequality may force people, not adapted to this shifting pattern, to take up even more jobs – no matter how temporary or time-consuming – in order to survive, thus disrupting the work-life balance. From the positive aspect, nevertheless, the same technologies can alter our work-life balance by reducing our working time, all the while maximizing our productivity levels and outputs.

Certainly, I can’t say my postulation will be totally correct. I would rather be cautiously optimistic.

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