#996, the work paradox and the joy of extreme pottering

There’s been a bit of a Linkedin storm following Billionaire Jack Ma’s comments supporting the ‘996’ work culture in China, where people in the tech sector are expected to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

It’s part of the long running debate on work/life balance and the perceived constant pressure to work longer.

Automation is fuelling the debate: how can people be working harder and longer when automation is supposed to be reducing the amount of work people do?

The stock answer is that demand in the tech sector will more than compensate for the  jobs which automation displaces.

Mushrooming demand and skills shortages in tech will mean people having to work harder and longer just to keep up.

As long as we can retrain displaced workers and keep making people work harder, we can keep a productive workforce and carry on delivering sustained economic growth.

I believe this argument is based on an entrenched model of the work market which is rapidly becoming outdated.

Work as we know it faces an existential crisis, one I explore in more depth in my blog post ‘What happens when the work runs out?’

The crisis stems from a basic paradox in our reasons for working.

Fundamentally, we work to live; to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.

If we’re fortunate, we also get to live to work; work gives us a sense of purpose, achievement and self-worth.

And we work to make our lives more comfortable, to make our work ever more productive so we don’t have to work so hard.

That’s where the paradox lies. If we keep making work more productive, logically we must reach a point where supply outstrips demand and there’s no longer enough work to go around.

Capitalism tells us that constant growth in demand will save us from this – we have to keep getting more productive to keep up with consumption. And, as George Orwell observed over 70 years ago, if consumption falters, there’s always the option to have a war.

Our work ethic is pretty well ingrained because most of human history has involved the majority of people having to work their fingers to the bone just to keep the wolf from the door, sometimes literally.

Life has been pretty much just working, eating, sleeping, procreating and worshipping for most of humanity for most of its history.

Leisure only became a thing for most of the working population after the Industrial Revolution. and even then, it took its time to filter down.

Initially, there was plenty of resistance from the new class of business owners to sharing the benefits of industrialisation with the workforce, until workers started organising themselves and a few enlightened owners realised exploitation was just plain wrong.

Two hundred years later, history seems to be repeating itself. Digital and automation represent a massive opportunity to make our lives and work easier, yet our addictions to our work ethic and the capitalist model seem to be pushing us backwards.

Thus we have a major industrial power virtually mandating working hours which would shame an 18th century peasant,  and a clutch of LinkedIn comments on this practice  which begin ‘Of course, I’ve worked 72 hour weeks sometimes… ’ like it’s a badge of honour.

I trust we will get past this phase as the revolution matures. As it does, the world of work will start to look very different.

I don’t just mean that we’ll all end up working in IT. For one thing, I don’t see the boom in IT jobs lasting too long.

IT productivity has historically increased at a similar rate to processor speeds. When I started as a programmer in the 80s it would take me several days to create a simple input/output transaction, now I can create an eCommerce website in a couple of hours. Assuming this trend continues, it won’t be long before all our IT creates itself.

The change in work will be much more fundamental than just a shift to different types of 9 to 5 or #996 jobs, and I hope it will benefit all of us. I don’t know what it will look like, but I think some current trends may give us a clue.

I certainly don’t envision a vast impoverished underclass foraging for scraps outside huge, gleaming automated factories and call centres owned by the super rich, privileged few.

Apart from anything else, the super rich will still need a sizeable population who they can sell stuff to, so that’s not a sustainable model for anyone.

I prefer to focus on the potential for automation to make us all hyper-productive, and how that can positively transform our work and leisure lives.

Assume that all the repetitive, time-consuming, mechanical and analytical stuff gets done by the robots and computers. What choices does that give us?

We can choose to be super entrepreneurs, creating disruptive new ventures with minimal effort and risk, sourcing all the services we need from an extended cloud covering not just IT but all services from production to sales.

We can choose to work in those areas which automation is unlikely to take over any time soon, either because of technological constraints (for example, jobs requiring a high degree of non-deterministic manual dexterity) or barriers to social acceptance (for example, the arts).

Happily, these are often the jobs which we wanted to do when we grew up, but the careers adviser told us we needed a ‘proper’ job instead, in areas like sports, crafts, the arts and value added customer service.

Or we can choose to tend the machines. I’m convinced that there will be a lot fewer jobs in the tech sector as IT becomes more self-supporting, but they will still have to exist.

Because we are hyper-productive, we can do any combination of all these and still have ample time to stop and smell the roses, or, if we prefer, to watch Love Island in our pants.

The rise of the ‘slasher’ shows we are already moving in this direction. As a writer/house husband/IT consultant/Film extra I guess I fall into that category, and I certainly don’t feel I’m missing out on life by not doing 50 hour weeks in the office any more (I confess, I never aspired to 72).

And that highlights another opportunity; this hyper-productive, digital-based world of work is properly inclusive.

A high proportion of ‘slashers’ are working mothers, disability is less of a barrier to a flexible, ‘work anywhere’ working life, and whilst I quickly realised on taking redundancy that getting back into the corporate world at the age of 56 was a non-starter, becoming a ‘slasher’ was easy, and is something I plan to continue at least until bits start dropping off me.

My only issue is with being a ‘slasher’ is the branding.

No matter how I hard I try to rationalise it, I can’t get used to being called a ‘slasher’, with its associations of being decisive, assertive and thrusting. I feel I’m past all that.

To make it truly inclusive, please can we call our more mature ‘slashers’ something else?

‘Extreme Potterers’ would get my vote, as that’s what I feel like – someone who spends their time pottering productively with a purpose. (As I normally sport a beard, I thought of having a blogger handle of ‘Hairy Potterer’, but I feared J K Rowling might be feeling litigious).

Losing our ingrained conventions around the world of work will be challenging. If we can, there’s the potential to deliver an improvement to our quality of life greater than the Industrial Revolution’s creation of leisure time. #996 takes us in the wrong direction, and I hope and trust it is just a bump in the road.



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