70-hour workweek: Why Murthy's Proposal won't help India Thrive

By Consultants Review Team Friday, 03 November 2023

Do Indians not put up enough effort? We don't, according to one of the co-founders of the Indian software behemoth Infosys Ltd. Last week, billionaire Narayana Murthy claimed that young Indians in particular were adopting "unwanted habits" from the sluggish West, stifling India's production and progress. "My request," he told reporters, "is that our youngsters must say, 'This is my country, I want to work 70 hours a week.'"  

Murthy's issue is more than just generational whining. He is not alone in his concern that unless the present generation of young Indians achieves in the same manner that their predecessors in nations such as China have, India will never catch up. "Unless we improve our work productivity," he said, "we will not be able to compete with those countries that have made tremendous progress."

Unfortunately for Murthy's theories, his facts are incorrect. For one thing, as far as we can determine, productivity is unrelated to the number of hours people labor. Most studies in the economic literature, on the other hand, "find evidence of decreasing returns to hours worked."

The realization that the more you work, the less you generate in your off-time has a long history. To establish this, the Utopian industrialist Robert Owen kept thorough records at his cotton mills in New Lanark in the nineteenth century. In 1892, William Mather cut his ironworkers' workweek by five hours and published a groundbreaking book about the results.

So, what do you think? We may not be performing our best job in India after 60-plus hours, but surely we would still generate more than we are now?

The second flaw in Murthy's argument is that Indians already work longer hours than most people. According to the Indian government's 2019 time-use study, men between the ages of 15 and 59 in metropolitan India spend an average of 521 minutes per day in paid employment. That equates to more than 60 hours per week. If people with only a primary education are excluded, the figure rises even higher.

This is significantly more than the labor hours recorded by comparable surveys in other nations. According to the 2017 China Labor-Force Dynamics Survey, the average employee in the People's Republic worked slightly under 45 hours per week, with more than 40% working more than 50 hours per week. The pandemic forced us all to work from home, but according to one survey, Indians had to put in more unpaid overtime than any other country.

Murthy's other analogy, with postwar Germany, is much stranger. He implied that Germany's postwar development was the consequence of its workers putting in hard work weeks out of patriotism. Nonetheless, while German workers in the 1950s surely worked longer hours than, say, British workers, the total was most likely between 45 and 50 hours per week. By the end of the decade, it had begun to fall as labor organizations emerged from the ruins of the war.

The one example that Murthy could fairly refer to is South Korea, which spent the 1960s increasing its work hours to world-beating levels — only to reduce them by a third over the next three decades, to about the level of Pakistan or Indonesia today.  

The truth is that how hard a country works does not predict whether it will prosper. The key question is whether it is successful in increasing each worker's productivity sufficiently. India performs significantly worse than counterparts such as China in this regard: From around 70% of Indian labor productivity in 1978, Chinese output per worker increased in the decades that followed to 110, 130, and 220 percent of Indian levels in agriculture, services, and industries, respectively.

Instead of being concerned about young Indians not working enough hours, Murthy should have been criticizing his own generation for failing to improve India's education system and provide today's workers with the skills they need to compete. In the end, Murthy's concern shows less about India's growth challenges and more about corporate India's culture. Long hours are valued in this country; you're supposed to be on call and available at all times, and the 9-to-5 workweek is more of a suggestion than a requirement.


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