Even Narayana Murthy isn't always on point: youth must work smarter, not longer

Co-founder of Infosys NR Narayana Murthy. (File Photo)
Co-founder of Infosys NR Narayana Murthy. (File Photo)

Summary

  • It's true that India's productivity ranks among the lowest globally based on GDP per hour worked. However, suggesting that longer working hours alone will bridge this gap might be an oversimplification

NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys and father-in-law of the UK prime minister, may be more in the headlines due to his familial connection, but that does not mean that India’s tech titan has stopped being an acute observer of the domestic economic scene just because he has relinquished control at India’s second-largest technology company.

His observations generally tend to be on the mark, and his advice – when he gives it – usually sound and well worth listening to. He was one of the first business leaders to speak up about transparency in business. Infosys was one of the first to share wealth with employees through stock options. He was also the first to point out that CEOs should not be paid unreasonably more than the average employee.

So, when Narayana Murthy says Indians need to work harder, he is probably right, right?

Not quite. Appearing in a podcast hosted by his one-time CFO Mohandas Pai, Murthy, while dwelling on China’s progress, remarked that Indians, particularly the youth, need to work harder, if the nation is to achieve the kind of progress China has, or Japan and Germany did after World War II.

“Somehow our youth has the habit of taking not-so-desirable habits from the West, and then… not helping the country", before going on to say, Therefore, my request is that our youngsters must say, this is my country, I’d like to work 70 hours a week," a report quoted Murthy as saying.

This is not the first time that he has spoken up about the need for Indians to work harder. In a 2020 television interview, Murthy urged the nation to take a pledge to work “ten hours a day, six days a week" – or sixty hours a week – in order to compensate for the setbacks caused by the pandemic.

This time around, he has upped the work-week ask by another 10 hours, arguing that India’s productivity is among the lowest in the world. And he said he was aiming his appeal particularly at the youth because “…youngsters form a significant majority of our population at this point in time, and they are the ones who can build our country."

Murthy is right on two counts: One, India has a predominantly youthful population, more than half is under 25 years and 60% below 35 years of age; and two, that India’s productivity is among the lowest in the world. India ranks in the bottom third of International Labour Organization’s (ILO) labour productivity rankings, based on GDP (in constant dollars) per hour worked.

But he is wrong in assuming that simply putting in more hours of work will lead to enhanced productivity, that too at levels which will enable us to catch up with the advanced economies in terms of progress and development.

For starters, Indians already work harder than most others in the world. According to ILO statistics reported in Mint, Indians work longer hours than almost all countries in the world, with the exception of a handful of countries. Regular wage or salaried employees pull a staggering 52-hour work week in rural India and an even longer 53-hour week in urban India. Regular wage/salaried employees also average less than one day off in a week, clocking in 6.2 work days per week in rural India and 6.1 work days a week in urban India, according to the NSO’s Periodic Labour Force Survey (2018-19). All this for paltry remuneration: India’s minimum wage is also among the lowest in the world.

And they also have a very strong work ethic. According to another ILO report, Working life and work-life balance around the world, 2022, only a measly 4.4% of Indian workers felt they were overworked while an astonishing 47% felt they were underemployed!

The unstated assumption behind Murthy’s call for youth to work harder is that they are not working hard enough at the moment. That’s incorrect too. According to a Manpower Group survey, Indian millennials spend 52 hours at work per week, compared to 48 in China, 46 in Japan and just 41 in Australia.

Clearly, Indians are working harder, longer, and for less money than their counterparts in most countries in the world. The reasons this labour does not translate into higher productivity are manifold – from poor infrastructure to poor skills to lack of capital and technology to poor deployment of resources.

Yes, India’s productivity is low. But for this to go up, India needs to work smarter, not harder.

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