Home/ Opinion / Columns/  The misleading outrage over 18-hour work days

Dear fresh graduate,

Congratulations on finishing college! I am writing to you because I want you to be successful. I care for the happiness it will bring you and your family. I also care because the trajectory of your career will determine India’s growth and development. The stakes are high.

A couple of recent incidents prompted this letter. Earlier this month, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Bombay Shaving Company was forced to apologize for advising people in their early twenties to put in 18-hour work days for 4-5 years, and work hard. The social media backlash accusing him of promoting a toxic work culture was so strong that he quit that platform entirely.

The CEO would be wrong if he had demanded that his company’s employees work such long hours and judged them solely on that basis. But to the extent that he was counselling young people on the attitude you need to adopt early in your career, he was speaking in your interest.

Remember, all those people on social media stoning the folk devil of the day don’t care about your interests. I think you have a better chance of success heeding his advice than of those who criticized him for what he said. For those of us who started from humble beginnings, hard work is the surest ticket to upward mobility.

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Many of you took competitive entrance examinations just a few years ago. At the time the adults around you would have told you to study long and hard. If you went to a good university, you are likely to have put in a lot of hours to pass the course, and a lot more to get good grades. Your family and well- wishers would have advised you to sacrifice some of your leisure so that you can improve your life prospects.

The same holds soon after you graduate. You do have a degree, but you are still mostly learning. The only difference, in case you have a job, is that you are getting paid for it.

In fact, even if you graduated from a good college with a professional degree, you are quite probably not employable. Last year, the eighth India Skills Report found that on an average, one out of two fresh graduates fell short of what employers need. In some streams, fewer than one in five had the skills necessary for entry level jobs. Just as good employers invest in training you, you must invest in yourself by learning on the job.

A growing economy means that there are many jobs available for freshers, and you might not find it too hard to get one. But if you want your pay package to grow, you must become more productive. To be productive, you must be diligent, learn things quickly, build professional networks, seek mentors and try to excel at the work that you’ve been assigned. ‘Work-life balance’ is often misunderstood. There is no single point at which work, life responsibilities and leisure balance for everyone at every point in time. Your balance points are different from mine, as mine are from my retired father’s. We all struggle to achieve this balance, if at all we ever do. The good news is that if you work hard and learn fast, you will be able get closer to your desired balance. For by its very definition, higher productivity frees up more time for leisure.

The other recent incident I want to mention concerns a frustrated social media post by the co-founder of EaseMyTrip. After accepting his offer, a candidate failed to show up on joining day, and instead sent a text message about having found a better offer. The pained employer complained that this practice is highly prevalent, ends up wasting time and resources, and deprives other candidates of the opportunity.

You might think that I’m being naive, but keeping one’s word is a good habit to cultivate. Take your time to decide on offers, but once you make a commitment, stick to it. This includes being punctual, meeting deadlines, keeping confidences and honouring contracts. You can’t write these things on your curriculum vitae (CV), but you’ll eventually discover that there is something called word-of-mouth, and it makes a difference between landing great career opportunities against merely good ones.

But there are also things recruiters can spot in your CV. A series of short stints, for example, is a red flag. As you grow older and need more stability, you might find that the only companies willing to hire you are the ones that give you short stints.

Unless the working conditions are horrible, you should stay in your first job for a couple of years at least. The first few months to get a basic grip, the next several to acquire domain skills, and the second year to really deliver. Two good appraisal cycles will equip you solidly for your career. The stakes being relatively low, you can afford to make mistakes. Forgiveness comes easy and the consequences of failure are small at this stage. These benefits far outweigh the higher pay that someone will offer you in a few months.

Remember that ultimately you are responsible for your career. Don’t become a pawn in someone else’s culture war. Don’t be taken in by opinions merely because they are popular. Or because they are dispensed by bearded middle-aged newspaper columnists with greying temples. Think for yourself. Think long term.

Best wishes.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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Updated: 12 Sep 2022, 10:32 AM IST
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