By now, you would have heard of ‘996’ – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – the extreme work culture that billionaire Jack Ma recently endorsed.
My father lived and breathed this philosophy for the past three decades. He never took a break. Not even during family holidays, when he would wake up at four in the morning to answer emails.
I understood why he had to do it. It was a tumultuous time – there were racial tensions in his country and he had to prepare for the migration of his family. Then, there was a financial crash. He had a company to run, a family to feed, a vision to fulfill. He had no choice but to prioritise work over his hobbies, his health, and even spending time with his family.
But I daresay his dedication to work tore our family apart.
Today, my siblings and I enjoy the benefits of our hardworking father’s endeavours. We live comfortably in a spacious home and have never worried about our next meal. I’m immensely grateful for that.
However, we’re also the children of divorced parents.
I’ve since learnt from my father’s example. While wealth is wonderful, no amount of money or professional recognition can buy back time, or my father’s involvement in my childhood.
As a millennial that’s only just entered the workforce, I’ve vowed to prioritise my work-life balance over riches, success and accolades.
Jack Ma: “Workers need to work 12 hours a day, six days a week”
So I was concerned when Bloomberg reported that, during an internal meeting at his company Alibaba Group on Apr 11, Ma had told workers that only those able to put in six 12-hour days each week would be hired.
According to a transcript published on Alibaba’s official WeChat account, China’s richest man had said: “If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining.”
“If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when will you? Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honour to boast about?” he said in the speech.
“If you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”
Was Jack Ma expecting too much?
The self-made Ma, who didn’t grow up privileged, has touted the secret to his success as hard work and dedication.
And in truth, several of Ma’s comments held merit. It’s not wrong to focus the majority of your time and energy into your profession.
What’s concerning is Ma’s statement: “Work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining.” That means a 12-hour day is the bare minimum he expects from all his staff.
Several professions do require such gruelling hours. Many doctors, for example, also work 12-hour shifts.
However, they are also remunerated with better income – especially when they eventually make partner in, or run their own clinic. But if you’re working in a firm where you have no stake in, you shouldn’t be expected to pull such hours.
In the case of Alibaba, though, these are minimum wage workers, expected to work maximum hours.
While one does need to put in time, effort and drive in order to succeed, Ma is wrong for demanding that people work hard. I, for one, wouldn’t want to do all that and end up mentally, emotionally and maybe even physically broken.
Labour laws, like that of a stipulated eight-hour work day, exist to protect employees. They shouldn’t be ignored.
They serve a purpose as a middle ground, where one can work reasonable hours – effectively and efficiently – to get ahead in their career, without having to feel the whip of management.
And that is where work-life balance comes in.
A millennial’s take on work-life balance
Personally, work-life balance is everything to me.
As I’ve said, I’m a child of divorced parents. Although my father tried to carve out time for other things, his intense work schedule meant he had to sacrifice sleep, his hobbies, and eventually, time with his family.
This affected my parents’ relationship. They filed for divorce when I was a teenager, and my father moved abroad to focus on his business.
This meant he missed out on many of the milestones of my youth. The collection of my ‘O’ level results, dropping me off to my school prom, dealing with my first break-up – seemingly trivial event dates on his packed calendar, perhaps, but immeasurable ones to me. I wasn’t able to share my joy, my giddiness, and my heartache with my father.
Could this have been prevented if my father chose to prioritise work-life balance, instead? I don’t know.
All I know is that as a teenager, I couldn’t help but feel my father chose his career over us.
I realise now that may not have been entirely the case, but the notion stayed with me throughout my life, and it’s created a multitude of problems. Most notably, perhaps, the unspoken rift between my father and I.
I’ve come to realise that, as much as I wish it weren’t so, every day is a zero-sum game. An extra hour at work means an hour less with my loved ones.
I work hard, but I won’t sacrifice everything for my career. Because success isn’t measured only in terms of riches.
It can also come in the form of a stable home environment, excelling at your hobby, or keeping fit, all of which can play a big part in building character and making you a healthier and more well-rounded person.
Being happy is what’s most important.
I know I’m not an anomaly for thinking this way. Studies have found that millennials care more about work-life balance than career advancement, wealth and leadership opportunities.
Maybe they agree with me: that after a certain limit, no amount of money can compensate for health and family time.
Many millennials share the same sentiments
Two decades ago, in 1999, Ma gave a similar speech where he also rejected the idea of work-life balance.
“If we have that kind of 8am-to-5pm spirit, then we should just go and do something else,” he had said.
Ma had insisted that China’s tech companies could only make it big in the world by rejecting work-life balance, and working harder to catch up with America’s world-dominating tech giants.
Back then, Ma was widely lauded for this, and regarded as a visionary. That was also the year he co-founded his company, the Alibaba Group.
The Alibaba Group’s success as a multinational conglomerate whose size and operations rival that of American tech giants Amazon or Google suggests that Ma’s philosophy was right. At least back then.
But it’s 2019, and the tide has turned. Since making his comment, Ma has received flak from not just the Chinese, but the rest of the developed world, too, for his endorsement of gruelling, and at times deadly, overtime work culture.
As China is coming of age, the lauding of overtime work culture is seen as a clear violation of workers’ rights.
Industry workers have even set up a discussion group called “996.ICU” on the code-sharing platform GitHub, suggesting that anyone working those hours all the time could end up in a hospital intensive care unit with burnout.
Thankfully, Ma’s had a slight change of heart. On a new post on his Weibo account on Apr 14, he said: “If you find a job you like, the 996 problem does not exist.”
And to elaborate on the extreme work ethic, Ma added: “Real 996 should be spending time learning, thinking and for self-improvement. The people who stick to 996 must have found their passion, and their happiness besides from money.”
More to life than just money
Happiness means different things to different people.
Truth be told, while I enjoy eating a good meal and buying a new pair of shoes – activities that cost money – I also enjoy things that cost very little or nothing at all, like cuddling my cat.
Money can buy you things and experiences that makes you happy, but only up to a point.
In 2018, a study found that while income could contribute to happiness, happiness does not rise indefinitely with more income.
In other words, there is a cut-off point at which higher incomes no longer leads to a greater sense of well-being. The technical term for this cut-off is the income “satiation point”.
While it differs from country to country, in Southeast Asia, the satiation point sits at around S$70,000 a year. So, according to the study, that means that a person earning S$1,000,000 is no happier than a person earning S$70,000.
Yes, I may never enjoy the level of success that Jack Ma has attained because I am not inclined to work as hard as he does.
But, you know what? I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.