Op-ed and Comment

Short working hours

I honestly don’t think shorter working hours are going to work. People want to work more because they like it.


All work and no play is no way to spend the rest of your life

Shoba Narayan
August 9, 2014 Updated: August 9, 2014 05:59

How many hours a week do you work on average? For most of us, the problem is not the division between work and home, but the fact that work has now seeped into every part of our lives. We are constantly checking email without differentiating whether it’s work email or pleasure.
Employees and employers are able to stay in touch 24/7, thanks – or perhaps it is more appropriate to say no thanks – to text messages and apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. The combined effect of this constant infiltration of the work culture into our lives can be overwhelming.
For many of us, it is difficult to switch off, and indeed, we don’t even know how to do it. I certainly am a victim, if you want to call it that. I cannot go one hour without checking my email or my phone, whether it is Sunday or whether I’m on holiday. The whole notion of switching off or taking time off for leisure seems oddly outdated in our continuously connected lives. Along come a couple of billionaires who suggest the opposite. Recently, both Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and Larry page, the cofounder of Google, have suggested different versions of a shorter workweek. Slim suggests that people work for three days a week with longer daily hours. (In response, heraldscotland.com posted a story headlined: “Fat chance of Slim’s short week working.”) Page suggested shorter working hours as a way of combating unemployment.
Both billionaires linked shorter work-weeks with higher life satisfaction. Is that really true?
Of the two approaches, I think Slim’s is better. With a net worth of $79.1 billion, Slim doesn’t even need to work. His approach suggests that people work longer hours per day –11 hours to be exact – and work for a longer number of years. The current retirement age of 65 is outdated, according to him. I agree. The beauty of working three days a week is that you can actually plan to do different things that physically and geographically remove you from work. You can go for an all-day hike, for example. You can take a camping trip.
Page’s proposal for shorter working hours will not change our lifestyles very much, in my view. It is not that we don’t have leisure time these days. We do. It is just that it is hard to switch off, even late at night when we don’t need to work. Being on again, off again has the benefit of not letting work issues fall through the cracks, but has the huge disadvantage of clogging up our mental space with everything that is only work related. How many of us don’t check work email on the weekend? I would venture to suggest that it is a miniscule proportion. Getting four out of seven days free per week, on the other hand, offers plenty of possibilities. You could volunteer,, or you could sign up for a course.
The larger question has to do with the purpose of work. Do you work to make a living or to create a purposeful life? If you need to work to make a living, many of these philosophical questions aren’t really relevant. If you don’t need to work – at least to the level that you do and the hours that you do – to put bread on the table, the question of a shorter work-week becomes very relevant.
Why are you working? If you are over 50 and reasonably senior in your job, it would be a good time to figure out an anwwer this questions.
In coming decades, the more meaningful issues will not be about work, but will be about leisure and legacy. Building a family and raising good children and grandchildren are issue that have to do with legacy. Both require a time commitment that is linked with leisure. If you are stressed at work, it is unlikely that you will be open to the small signals that your children and family send.
Regardless of whether you choose the Page model or the Slim model, one thing is clear in my head: work less; if possible, find meaningful work; find an activity that will see you through years of leisure; cultivate a group of friends that you can stay in touch with over several decades; and last but not least, figure out your spiritual parameters that will help you stay content and resilient as you grow older.


  1. I can see your points Shoba…

    My question is that whether the Arts Wives Club has *any achievement* to speak of? Okay you are saying “achievement is overvalued” – but to almost everyone else in every field of work — sports (Tendulkar), music (Bhimsen), engineering (Sreedharan), banking (Raghuram Rajan and your and my husbands) … there is a very tangible definition of *doing work* and being satisfied with the outcome of the work.

    Even the scholars of yore were rich because they knew something – they had studied something and built up a body of work that was recognized among their peers. But the Arts Wives Club (many a time mostly stay-at-home web surfing and book reading moms) has not even this to show for??

    I guess I am buying into the achievement (maybe intellectual achievement) paradigm. Okay, you are questioning it. Even if I think about this – creativity, spontaneity, imagination, smelling the roses — these are important, but the quandary is this. Those who achieve something will end up (by definition) utilizing their creativity and spontaneity to achieve it .. and then sit back and smell the roses.

    But frankly (and Shoba you can probably get where I am coming from) I feel like the Arts Wives Club sits around “sour grape-ing” achievements they don’t have, and by doing so they are not even smelling the roses. Sometimes I feel this whole arts mother thing should have been nipped in the bud a long time ago. I, too, could have studied engineering or medicine and then … after having built a bridge or saved a life, I could look on that with satisfaction and smell the roses. I could have sat comfortably with my husband and his friends and got involved in their conversation.

    Instead I left that field and damn this, on the day after I sit in the morning in front of my computer and think about mountains and lakes and other meaningless things and type up has-been posts pooh-poohing the achievers.

    I sometimes feel like the moochers in Atlas Shrugged. Either that or “nach na jane, angan teda” (which my husband translates as “don’t know to dance, blame the stage for being crooked”.


    1. I am not pooh-poohing achievement, Vaidehi. I am only saying that it is not the only thing to build a life. Read an article in Aeon magazine by Roy Baumeister about a “meaningful” life. It is great if people can achieve what they want to achieve. But that is an external measure and it is not enough. I think for you– if I may be so bold– it is not about achievement, as much as it is discovering a pursuit that is meaningful to you and one that will sustain you. There is a book called “Flourish,” which has a lovely description of Mihaly Cheeks-sent-mihalyi (the “Flow” author) whose brother is interested in fossils and began examining his collection in the morning. The day would pass with him not knowing. In my parents’ apartment are countless ladies– Thangam Mami, Visalam mami who have created meaning and happiness without “achievement.” So by all means, achievement is a great paradigm to measure a life. But it is not the only one– is all I’m saying. Maybe creating and nurturing relationships like our grandparents did is not to be pooh-poohed at.



    2. Vaidehi,

      You have written a great post, so honest, introspective and yet cognizant of the world around you. You are a true Woman (capital W).

      So, sisters, here is my story. Like Vaidehi (and Shoba also perhaps) I moved to the USA after marriage. I studied B.Com in India, so maybe I am a Commerce woman instead of Arts, but other than that my story is the same i.e. arranged marriage, moved to the USA, spent six months honeymoon period then reality hit me.

      But that’s where things went different for me. I had not liked Commerce even in college, and I initially wanted to study arts (fine arts, painting etc). My husband (who got MBA from some bigshot univ in USA and works in corporate mergers) changed my mind. He initially was indifferent and then, over several months, convinced me to do a course in accounts. I initially was very hostile towards the idea. In fact our relationship also suffered alot during that time. But eventually I realized that my hubby had actually noticed that I used to do the household accounts very quickly – I had some aptitude in that area and so I could pursue that. He kept on telling me, pick a course where you can get a job later, you can always do arts etc at night.

      So after many months of contemplation and arguing etc etc, I did a course in accounts and eventually got a job as a corporate auditor. Now I find that working in the USA is very different than India, very professional and mostly everyone respects your abilities. I love my job. I also studied painting in an evening course and have now completed some pieces and thinking about holding an exhibit soon.

      I feel that I owe my husband everything. He was smart enough to find out what I was good at, and to convince me (despite my stubborn streak) to go for it and he supported me throughout, so thanks to him I have a job I love and we are both able to discuss common work issues etc., as a result our relationship has improved (in many respects 😉 ) If I had not listened and just completed some education for the sake of it then I would probably be in the same boat as you Vaidehi.

      So, Vaidehi, there is still time. Think about what you are good at and then study something where the job prospects even in USA are good. If your hubby can support you, it looks like he can very much do so, then you are set for a career. But don’t waste your golden years (25-45) without a career, only one life to live. Don’t regret it later.

      Go for it. The world is yours.



  2. Shoba I think you might find this interesting.

    When discussing this article with my hubby (who works in I-banking), he said that he really enjoys his work which is similar to a sportsman in a sport or a painter doing painting or a singer singing. When work is so enjoyable then you really do feel you want to do more of it, not less. Work added a lot of value to his life – gave him challenges, developed his mind, drove interactions with lots of people etc.

    But that was only the beginning.

    I asked if he enjoyed his family (me), and eventually the discussion led to the question of “what value did the marriage (I) add”. Like you (although you are vastly more successful as a writer) I am an arts graduate and in the first 2 years it became clear that this was the extent of my contribution to his life – to be a wife, keep house and (when it happens) take care of the kids. Also, after IIT and a US business education, he is a brilliant (are you listening, honey?) and yet humble and caring man. I could not have asked for more.

    But I was seriously after something more. I can give him love and support as a partner and I can give the kids the love of a mother. But so could any other woman. Don’t get me wrong – we love each other deeply, and like any other couple we’ve learnt to deal with each others faults. The problem is, I can see his eyes light up and sparkle when he talks to his friends about all these subjects. But I can contribute very little in these discussions. I reached out to my girl friends for support. Some have completed their masters in the US (in computers or arts or one even in journalism) and even they know their contributions are limited.

    My husband, ever the gentleman, pointed out that he married me because he genuinely liked talking with me and still feels the same way. I asked him if he would have liked me more if I had been smarter or more accomplished, and he said perhaps, but every person is different and it is pointless to compare. I asked if he would have still preferred to marry me if an IIT educated girl had also been available (everything else being equal). He said, tactfully and yet authentically (which is why I love him so) that he didn’t know but now he doesn’t care because he loves me truly. We argued amicably for a while and in the end he admitted that though he cares about “his values” (curiosity, learning, kindness) he is most drawn to achievement but he has learnt to appreciate poetry etc after being with me.

    However, I am still not satisfied. Have the good women of the Arts Wives Club (aka Haldi Kumkum Feminists) really added value to their hubby and family?


    1. Wow!!! Amazing blog-post Vaidehi. Thanks. I know several couples who share this same dynamic. I get where you are coming from. I have come to believe that we live in a time where “worldly achievement” is overvalued. Specifically monetary achievement. I remember a time in India (our grandparent’s generation) when scholars were valued not because they were rich but because they knew things. Ditto for China before Mao. Your husband seems like a super man. And you’ve laid it out very logically. But you are buying into the intellectual achievement paradigm; and I am at a stage when I am questioning it. What about spontaneity? Imagination? Creativity? Balance? Fun? Smelling the roses? Singing songs? Ahem…boredome. See below.
      7 Reasons Why Boredom Is Good For You



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