February 14, 2014 10:53 am

What are we working for?

‘Both men and women now want to combine work with raising kids. That means nobody can stay in the office all hours’
Illustration by Luis Grañena of a person combining work and parenting©Luis Grañena

There’s always some foreign bogeyman out to get Americans, and today that bogeyman is an Asian child. Hard-working Asian kids will “eat our lunch”, predicts Thomas Friedman, the pundit who exists to articulate mainstream American anxieties. Last year’s Pisa test scores, which showed Asian kids extending their lead over western children, helped spread this particular anxiety across the west. Now the new book The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (interviewed last week in this magazine) depicts Asians and other immigrants outworking regular Americans.

The growing consensus: we feckless westerners need to become like South Korean kids, swotting in the hagwon crammer till midnight.

Thankfully, it’s not true. We don’t need to work harder. Instead, westerners will continue our trend of working less, and Asians are already starting to follow us.

Working hard isn’t some ancient “Asian value”. Westerners used to work hard, too. Factory workers in the industrial revolution put in Korean-style seven-day weeks. The French only got paid holidays in 1936. Many European schools used to be as tough as any hagwon. Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play Spring Awakening describes a school full of beaten-down pupils not totally unlike the European lyceum I attended in the 1980s. For generations until Saigon fell in 1975, “west” viewed “east” as “indolent, decadent, pleasure-loving, passive”, writes Ian Buruma in The Missionary and the Libertine.

Today’s Chinese and Koreans work hard not because of Asian values. Rather, people tend to work hard when they are poor and then suddenly enter a system that lets them get richer through hard work. That’s what happened in postwar Germany and Japan, in Korea after its war, in China after Mao, and to countless immigrants in the US. However, once people have some money, they want to chill. In the typical immigrant trajectory, the first generation runs a corner shop, the second generation is a dentist and the third works part-time in an aromatherapy shop in Santa Fe. As Chua and Rubenfeld say: “Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations.”

Asians in Asia are starting to chill, too. Having become middle class, they are getting fed up with overwork. South Korean students topped the Pisa test rankings but ranked bottom in the developed world for happiness at school. Korean education minister Seo Nam-soo told the BBC: “I think no other country has achieved such rapid growth within a half century as Korea. And naturally, due to that, we emphasised achievement within schools and in society, so that students and adults were under a lot of stress, and that led to high suicide rates ... Our goals now are about how to make our people happier.” Nowadays, Korea’s government closes hagwons at 10pm, and shuts schools and workplaces on Saturdays. China and Thailand are limiting homework too. Thai teachers who overburden pupils can be reported.

Japan, the west’s lunch-eating bogeyman of the 1980s, has already slackened off. Working hours have dropped after 20 years of economic stagnation plus government regulation. The country may now be happier than in its boom years. In Bending Adversity , my colleague David Pilling’s new book on Japan, the young Japanese Yoshi Ishikawa says: “Our fathers didn’t look so happy to us. They worked such long hours. They earned money, but families in those days led separate lives. Maybe we are asking ourselves, ‘What are we working for?’”

That’s the question facing everyone who has enough to live on – as ever more people do, despite the economic crisis. If Obamacare succeeds, all developed countries will have guaranteed healthcare. Life then ceases to be a battle for survival. Extreme capitalists may regret this but it’s a fact that has consequences for working hours. Jonathan Portes, director of the UK’s National Institute for Economic and Social Research, says that as technology improves, “you could argue that if working hours don’t go down, there’s something wrong”. People will choose more leisure.

One other factor should keep cutting working hours in developed countries: shared childcare. Both men and women now want to combine work with raising kids. That means nobody can stay in the office all hours any more. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “lean in” at work. But my generation of fathers is increasingly “leaning out”: not shooting for top jobs because those would mean never being home for bath time. Indeed, Sandberg herself quotes a Pew Research survey from 2012, which found that among Americans aged 18 to 34, fewer men (59 per cent) than women (66 per cent) said “success in a high-paying career or profession” was important to their lives.

Westerners who choose to spend life in the office will become a shrinking self-selected group. The uproar after a Bank of America intern died in London last year, possibly from overwork, reflects the widespread desire to find bankers guilty of murder. But it also reflects growing aversion to workaholism.

Strivers such as Friedman, Chua and Sandberg like to see everyone striving. But societies in west and east are now seeking something else: that awkward balance between office, home and messing around on YouTube.

simon.kuper@ft.com

This article has been amended since original publication to reflect the fact that Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook COO, not CEO

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