Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy recently sparked a debate by suggesting that Indian youngsters should work 70 hours a week so the nation could compete with other developed nations. A senior congress MP, Manish Tewari, backed the idea, arguing working long hours should in fact become the norm. Many industrial stalwarts along with Bollywood actors have also lent their support to Murthy’s proposition.
Somehow, working long hours is equated with ‘development’. While many experts have already discussed the merits and demerits of this proposition, a key element that has been missing in the discourse is our (mis)conception of work, labour and value. Fears associated to working less share similarities with the ongoing debate surrounding unconditional welfare proposals like a basic income.
Decoding the meaning of value
One of the key criticisms of unconditional welfare is that it can discourage people from making a ‘valuable contribution’ to society. Only when everyone contributes to the economy can the system of cooperative production be sustained and lead to more progress, it is argued. For people like Murthy, this is precisely why working longer hours makes sense, for it allows us to pump in more ‘value’ into the economy and generate better income outcomes. We see echoes of this line of thinking in Hayek’s understanding of value, the 20th century libertarian economist who is renowned for his criticism of Keynesian economics. He argues that value is simply determined by demand and supply forces of the market i.e., a measure of “what consumers are willing to pay for this or that good”. Hence, incomes or wages are proportional to one’s contribution, determined by demand and supply contingencies. Murthy’s proposition, in essence, is inspired by the philosophy that engaging in labour is deemed a prerequisite for generating value.
However, this market-based conception of value stands on a hollow premise. Nothing tells us why satiating the market demand is equivalent to making a valuable contribution, something that Hayek and Murthy take for granted. While many economists justify this in the garb of ‘economic growth’, it is not clear why the market is considered as the source of all value. Performing labour, in whichever form it may be, is deemed as essential, without which we cannot think of doing anything meaningful or valuable with our lives in this current arrangement.
Problematising ‘market value’
Two problems emerge from this narrow conceptualisation of value. First, it lends credence to income inequality, since income is seen as a reflection of demand in the market. Certain occupations are, hence, considered more valuable in nature. A venture capitalist earning a significantly higher income over that of a teacher (who is likely to drive a greater social impact) is very well justified under this framework since considerations of justice and moral desert do not apply to the market. This makes Hayek argue that inequalities are an acceptable product of this arrangement which should not be corrected through redistributive measures because they have a legitimate grounding in economic value decided by the market forces. But on what grounds is an asset manager rewarded more by the market as compared to, for instance, an ASHA worker, is simply not clear.
Second, following from this, it is clear that markets can many times be brutal in assigning a value to one’s contribution and very unreasonably justify inequalities. Against this backdrop, Murthy’s proposition for Indians to work long hours reeks of ignorance and entitlement. On an average, gig workers in India dedicate over 12 hours to their work every day, which is already way above the recommended eight-hour daily limit stipulated by labour laws and exceeds Murthy’s suggested 70-hour workweek. Worse, the current economic setup with market’s dictatorial tendencies fails to reward the workers adequately, with many workers complaining about burnouts and earning a measly pay despite the time and effort they put in daily. Such examples demonstrate that extending working hours may not be a solution to India’s developmental problems, and could potentially exacerbate the situation instead. Notably, with 85% of the workforce being in the informal economy, most Indians are already working long hours for which they are not adequately remunerated.
Redefining value and a case for UBI
By confining ourselves to the market forces, we narrow our possibilities for measuring value. We need to reconceptualise our current understanding of one’s worth, one that allows individuals to make life decisions free from the constraints of market dynamics and to embrace diverse forms of work, activities, and lifestyles. Murthy’s suggestion for extended working hours is emblematic of a deeper problem of a narrow interpretation of the value of work, one that predefines the purpose of one’s labour. This perspective overlooks the various paths to leading a fulfilling life which fails to acknowledge the diversity in what constitutes a meaningful existence. As Marx rightly puts it, “emancipation is a matter of not only being free from work but also of being free to work in light of the ends that matter to us”.
Rather than promoting the idea of extending working hours, we should explore proposals that empower individuals to freely define the contours of their work time and labor power, so they can pursue goals which are aligned with their personal visions of a fulfilling and meaningful life. Proposals like ‘Universal Basic Income’ (UBI) offer a solution by providing a social security floor, ensuring individuals are not coerced into meaningless jobs. UBI allows for the prioritisation of personal freedom and the pursuit of activities with intrinsic value, shifting our barometer of value from market-oriented to one centred on the freedom to define a fulfilling life.
Akshat Sogani is a former LAMP fellow and Ashoka alumni, currently working as a policy consultant.