Long hours won't help India grow

Long hours won't help India grow

Do Indians not work enough? According to one of the co-founders of the Indian software giant Infosys Ltd, we don't. The billionaire Narayana Murthy said last week that young Indians in particular were picking up "undesirable habits" from the lazy West and thereby holding back India's productivity and its growth. "My request," he said, "is that our youngsters must say, 'This is my country, I want to work 70 hours a week.'"

Mr Murthy's concern reflects more than the usual generational whinging. He is not alone in worrying that, unless the current generation of young Indians succeeds the way their predecessors have in countries such as China, India is never going to catch up. "Unless we improve our work productivity," he insisted, "we will not be able to compete with those countries that have made tremendous progress."

Unfortunately for Mr Murthy's theories, he has his facts wrong. For one, productivity is, as far as we can tell, not linked to how many hours people work. If anything, most studies in the economic literature "find evidence of decreasing returns to hours" worked.

The insight that the more you work, the less you produce in your extra hours on the job has a long history. The Utopian industrialist Robert Owen kept meticulous records at his cotton mills in New Lanark in the 19th century in an endeavour to prove that. William Mather, in 1892, reduced his ironworkers' workweek by five hours and wrote a pioneering book about the results.

So what, you may ask? We may not be doing our best work in India 60-plus hours in, but surely we would still produce more than we would slacking off as we are right now?

That's the second problem with Mr Murthy's thesis: Indians already work longer hours than most. The Indian government's time-use survey in 2019 found that men between the ages of 15 and 59 in urban India spent an average of 521 minutes a day in paid employment. That translates to over 60 hours a week. The number is even higher if you exclude those with only primary education.

This is considerably higher than the work hours reported by similar surveys in other countries. The China Labor-Force Dynamics Survey in 2017 revealed that the average employee in the People's Republic spent just under 45 hours at work, though more than 40% reported that they were working over 50 hours a week. The pandemic sent us all to work from home, but at least one survey found that Indians had to put in more unpaid overtime thanks to that than any other country.

Mr Murthy's other comparison, with Germany after the war, is even odder. He implied that Germany's postwar growth resulted from its workers pulling punishing work weeks out of patriotic pride. Yet, while Germany's workers in the 1950s certainly worked longer hours than, say, the British, the total was still probably between 45 and 50 hours a week. And it started to dip by the end of the decade, as labour organisations re-emerged after the war.

The one outlier to which Mr Murthy could legitimately have pointed is South Korea, which spent the 1960s ramping up its work hours to world-beating heights -- before reducing them by a third over the following decades, to about the level of Pakistan or Indonesia today.

The fact is that how much a country works won't tell you whether it will get ahead. The real issue is whether it manages to increase each worker's productivity enough. And here India is doing considerably worse than peers such as China: From about 70% of Indian labour productivity in 1978, Chinese output per worker rose in the decades following to 110%, 130%, and 220% of Indian levels in agriculture, services, and industry, respectively.

Instead of worrying that young Indians aren't working enough hours, Mr Murthy should instead have been criticising his own generation for not improving India's education system and giving today's workers the skills they need to compete.

In the end, Mr Murthy's complaint reveals less about India's growth problems and more about the culture of corporate India. Long hours are valorised in this country; you're expected to be always on call, always available, and the 9-to-5 workday is more a suggestion than a rule.

The advertising executive Divya Khanna calls this "commitment demonstration": Face-time in the office and lengthy, digressive meetings with management are de rigueur. Corporate titans such as Mr Murthy have long bragged about how this attitude gives Indian organisations a competitive edge over sluggish Western ones.

More than a decade ago, Ratan Tata famously complained to the Times of London that the management of the British steel company (Corus) and automaker (Jaguar Land Rover) he had taken over didn't work hard enough. They wouldn't stay for meetings that lasted past 5pm; offices emptied early on Friday. Tata Steel's hard-edged management, he implied, would soon set that right. (Mr Tata may have made managers endure longer meetings, but it still hasn't made its Corus acquisition work for shareholders.)

This week, India Inc's luminaries lined up to drape themselves in the flag and endorse their fellow billionaire. "A five-day week culture is not what a rapidly developing nation of our size needs," said one. "It's our moment to go all in and build in one generation what other countries have built over many," said another.

But Mr Tata, Mr Murthy, and their fellow captains of industry are wrong. Indians should be encouraged to work smarter, not longer. An exhausted nation won't have the wherewithal to innovate. India should not be too tired to grow. ©2023 Bloomberg

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of 'Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.'

Mihir Sharma

Opinion Editor for Business Standard

Mihir Swarup Sharma is the Opinion Editor for Business Standard.

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