Posted on 2019-12-22 Edit on GitHub
Some months back, a website called 996.ICU caught the Chinese internet by storm, eventually also garnering the attention of Western media. The website, hosted on a GitHub repo that quickly became the website's most-favorited, is an open letter denouncing the common practice in China's tech companies of requiring employees to work from 9 AM to 9 PM, 6 days a week. The controversy escalated when Alibaba's Jack Ma, China's richest man, claimed that workers should "count themselves blessed to be able to work 996", as many others don't even have an opportunity to work and make money. The resulting furor was something to behold1.
Don't get mad, get evidence
My reaction to the raucous debate was muted, for several reasons.
First, long working hours in China are nothing unusual. My uncle, a low-level party functionary, worked 6.5 days a week doing things like driving to construction sites and impressing upon the workers how important it was to get projects done on time. And that's just white collar–farmers, restaurant operators, etc. all easily work more than 996 and make far less money.
Second, long working hours are nothing unusual in East Asia, even among developed countries. South Korea's known for "inhumanely long" workweeks, while Japan's long working hours have spawned a countrywide phenomenon of karoshi, or "death by overwork". Taiwan's no slouch either, ranking high on OECD's list of countries with the longest working hours. And in all these countries, workers at the largest corporations (Samsung, TSMC, etc.), i.e. the ones comparable to Alibab etc., work the longest hours of all.
Third, even in the West, where corporate pressure to work long hours is rarer, there are plenty of industries where long hours are the norm. Professionals who bill by the hour, such as lawyers, often work many unremunerated hours, turning an on-the-books 40 hours / week to 60+. Video game developers have made "crunch" the norm at studios across the industry. And "gig economy" workers such as Uber drivers have to constantly work to get the highest rates and meet bonus targets.
So rather than get angry at Jack Ma because he spoke his mind, or because he's rich, I'd suggest that those opposed to 996 recognize that white-collar jobs like software development are far from the only ones faced with long working hours, that we develop some understanding and sympathy for people across the employment spectrum; and that we elucidate why 996 is bad for individuals, companies, and society as a whole, lest we come across as "whiny" or "lazy"2.
Overwork and the individual
Why don't workers want to work more hours, especially if the hours are paid? It's because they know there are personal consequences to working too much.
Health consequences are insidious. For office workers in particular, too much sitting is linked to chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. Mental exhaustion could accelerate a decline in short-term memory (especially important for software developers). And driving while tired is a major risk factor in road accidents.
The social consequences are no less distressing. With so much time spent working, workers scarcely have time to engage in romance. It's perhaps no coincidence that East Asian countries have among the longest working hours and the lowest fertility rates3. Time to spend with family and friends is also reduced, likely contributing to loneliness and depression.
Overwork and the company
Anyone who's worked a company has certainly experienced Parkinson's Law, even if they hadn't any idea that it has a name.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
A worker who knows they'll be at the office for 12 hours a day rather than 8 will adjust their productivity accordingly. More bathroom breaks, more coffee runs, more fiddling on Twitter rather than doing real work. This is particularly prevalent in East Asian companies, where long hours are more a cultural expectation4 than a reflection of things that need to get done. South Korea's long hours are the inverse of its low productivity, such that its per-capita GDP is actually among the lower end in the OECD. Costs also rise for the employer, as they need to supply employees with facilities, machinery, security, etc.
This fact was well-understood by Henry Ford. In 1914, he reduced work hours per day from 9 to 8. In 1926, he reduced the work week from 6 days to 5, breaking the centuries-old tradition taking only Sunday as the day of rest. Other companies, stunned by Ford's reduction of working hours and even more by the resulting increase in output, soon followed suit.
But why does fewer hours lead to higher productivity? Ford, an industrialist, certainly didn't want his workers to produce less–quite the opposite, he expected them to do more with less. The reduction in hours wasn't just a benefit for workers, it was a challenge. Workers had to be more focused and innovative. Those who couldn't get their work done in the smaller amount of time got stern talks from HR.
Modern companies like Google realize the importance of getting workers to innovate and increase productivity. The 20% time policy is a means to that end, and has spawned products like Gmail and Google Maps. In today's fast-moving economy, where automation is rapid transforming one industry after another, more human input should be viewed as undesirable.
Overwork and society
What's bad for individuals and companies is obviously bad for society as a whole. But at a higher level, an economy where workers spend all their time working is one with a shortage of consumers. It's no coincidence that China's household share of GDP is among the lowest the world's ever seen, forcing the country to rely on exports (i.e. foreign demand) and infrastructure investment, making it vulnerable to tariffs, white elephant projects, and surging debt. South Korea, another big exporter, is also experiencing economic troubles amid slowing global growth and trade conflict.
Low fertility rates, previously mentioned, is another concern. There's a widespread belief that the One-Child Policy is responsible for China's drop in fertility, but the data just doesn't bear that out. The relaxation to a Two-Child Policy has also failed to reverse the decline, which continues unabated, hitting a record low in 2018. Korea's fertility also hit a record low in 2018, falling below 1 child per woman. While predictions that countries will "die out" in a few centuries are nonsensical clickbait, East Asia's reality as the fastest aging region in the world puts immense pressure on social services and, the case of China, raises the specter of "growing old before growing rich".
What is the purpose of work?
To bring everything together, we must ask a fundamental question: what is the purpose of work? To physically improve our lives, to bring meaning to our existence, to stabilize society and prevent idle hands from becoming the Devil's plaything? The answer may be different for different people, and at the different levels of individual, business, and society, but one thing's for sure: it isn't to waste resources via input of marginal hours. For the vast majority of individuals and companies, 996 does just that, which is probably why there's been such a strong, one-sidedly negative reaction to it.
Ma stepped down as Alibaba's chairman in September, a move that had nothing to do with the 996 controversy but perhaps says something about his own willingness to continue working 996
Whether not wanting to work 996 should be considered "lazy" is up for debate, but it's certainly the simplest counter-argument to a desire for shorter working hours. Rather than get bogged down on this "moral" issue, we can more effectively reject 996 with facts about productivity, innovation, and societal benefit.
What results in low fertility is a complex question. The biggest contributing factors seem to be urbanization and women's education, and fertility is declining worldwide. More time spent in school and longer work hours may delay family formation, but whether they impact the number of children a family has is uncertain.
Leaving before your boss would be disrespectful. Apply this up the organization hierarchy, and you get the interesting phenomenon of many people sitting around doing nothing, waiting for each tier of management to step out so the ones below can follow.