Why N.R. Narayana Murthy’s call for a 70-hour work week got such mixed reactions

Why N.R. Narayana Murthy’s call for a 70-hour work week got such mixed reactions


Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy’s recent statement suggesting that Indian youngsters should work 70 hours a week went viral, and has evoked all kinds of comments, both for and against it. At a superficial level, this is like a classic high-school debate, where points can easily be made for and against the motion, depending on which side one chooses to represent. Those against the motion have talked about the necessity of maintaining a good work-life balance and those for it have talked about India needing a more productive workforce to be able to reach the levels of developed countries. Or as the Ola co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal put it on X (formerly Twitter): “It’s our moment to go all in and build in one generation what other countries have built over many generations!”

Indeed, people on both sides of the debate have an incentive to say what they are saying. But this is a complex topic which needs a more nuanced look.

First, humans have come a long way from a time when working for a few hours a day was good enough for them. As Philip Coggan writes in Surviving the Daily Grind: “Anthropologists point wistfully to the days when hunter- gatherers could garner all the necessary food, water and firewood in 15 hours a week.” Those days are well and truly behind us. But the question is how long should the work week be? Narayana Murthy had told TV channel ET Now in 2020 that: “We should take a pledge that we will work ten hours a day, six days a week—as against 40 hours a week—for the next 2-3 years so that we can fast-track and grow the economy much faster.” Now, what made him go from 60 hours to 70 is something only he can explain. But more importantly, most individuals who work for firms at mid and lower levels can only do the work they are assigned. They are not in a position to create work for themselves and work longer hours, which those who run firms often need to. In fact, any attempts to do so by employees will only disturb the stability needed for large firms to operate efficiently.

Second, Narayana Murthy’s statement may not only have been for those working in firms. What about the self-employed? As per the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey (for the period July 2022 to June 2023), published in October, 57.3% of workers were self-employed, against 55.8% the year earlier (July 2021 to June 2022).

Of course, it’s important to clarify here that most self-employment is not the fancy VC-funded startup kind. The average monthly gross earnings for such individuals for the period July 2022 to June 2023 (as measured by the current weekly status method) stood at a little over 13,000 and the average work hours were around 42 per week.

Now, one can argue here that these individuals need to increase the number of hours they work every week. But what needs to be kept in mind is that like those working for large firms, there is only so much work on offer for the self-employed, and it’s not always easy to go looking for more work. Also, some of this work can be physical in nature and very tiring as well.

Third, there is a larger issue here that rarely gets talked about: Many Indian business owners and their top managers seem to love the idea of employees spending more time in office than the officially designated office hours.

Why is that? The economist Yanis Varoufakis makes a very interesting point in his book Techno Feudalism: What Killed Capitalism, where he talks about two kinds of labour—commodity and experiential. Commodity labour is where business owners and managers buy employees’ time, whereas in case of experiential labour, they buy the effort, the passion and the flair that an employee is likely to bring to work.

In order to explain experiential labour, Varoufakis takes the example of Don Draper—the legendary creative director in the popular TV series Mad Men: “His bosses would love to be able to purchase his ideas without having to tolerate him lounging around the office half drunk… Instead, they are forced to… [in the] hope that, during his inebriated daze, his genius will spontaneously deliver the famed Draper magic.” The trouble is that there are only a few such job profiles going around.

Most Indian managers and business owners are essentially looking to hire commodity and not experiential labour. Further, as the monthly payments they make to their pay-roll employees do not change depending on the number of work hours put in, they seem to like the idea of employees working long hours. It costs nothing extra. That’s the incentive at work for them.

Fourth, Narayana Murthy’s statement was very general in nature and hence meant different things to different people. His wife Sudha commented on the issue saying: “He has worked 80 to 90 hours a week, so he does not know what less than that is.” Now, that was Narayana Murthy’s experience, which worked for him, helped create Infosys and turned it into a real success story. But then, what worked for him doesn’t necessarily work for others as well. Every experience is at a certain point of time and in a particular context. Given what Narayana Murthy has achieved, his views are important, but the world is a lot more complicated than just that.

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Updated: 07 Nov 2023, 09:41 PM IST



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