996 is Not the Future of Work

Forcing employees to embrace the 996 work culture isn’t just cruel, it’s stupid.

China’s infamous “996” work culture — where employees are expected to be in the office from 9am to 9pm, six days a week — is not going away any time soon. Still considering all things, it’s likely not a sustainable future model either.

The backlash to the 996 grueling work culture and work grind is considerable and it will only increase. This is why a lot of talent in China moves to the U.S., Canada or Europe.

China’s rapid technology-sector development was built on workers who were willing to endure a grueling schedule in return for high pay and a shot at becoming the next startup billionaire. When growth slows, we question the edicts of top CEOs like those of Alibaba and JD.com.

If you are in your 20s and working in a startup, there may be period where Staying [at work] till 10pm feels like the new norm. Voluntary overtime on weekends is also now common as many people choose to work at least one day from home. So where does that leave us? Hustling is great, when it works. When it doesn’t work, you might be sacrificing your relationships, mental health and end up in the ICU.

It’s not that there’s a rebellion against 996 per se, it’s just that it is cruel. It’s more or less a violation of human rights. Just as child labor or working above a certain threshold (of hours a week) should be illegal. Laws protecting the human rights of workers need to be upheld.

Clocking up long hours has long been an unwritten rule in China — a way to demonstrate work ethic and prove your job dedication. When corporate espionage fails, outwork them? Startups and entrepreneurs have been working hard since the beginning of time. In some contexts there are valid incentives to do so.

Microsoft workers called on Chinese tech companies to comply with local labor laws, which limit their workers to 40 hours a week, with a maximum of 36 hours per month of overtime. Silicon Valley employees have easier lives, and sooner or later may not be able to compete with what Huawei, Alibaba and companies like ByteDance become.

Still that’s not to say that those Chinese companies don’t have inhumane working standards. Microsoft employees created a list of more than 150 companies they said have inhumane working conditions, including Huawei, Bytedance (makers of the app TikTok), and Ant Financial (associated with Alibaba) and so forth.

Protests of human rights violations don’t exactly last well in China. 996 is part of the urban “wolf-like” culture of corporate China.

For Billionaires who got lucky to be telling us how much to work certainly does sound insane. Just don’t tell that to Amazon or JD.com workers who are sacked for failing to meet productivity standards. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the worker.

The idea that “work does not feel like work when you love your job” may be a cliché. Yet, there are many people in the tech sector who care deeply about their work and clients. Money is often not the main motivator. When we are young, especially, we want to do impactful work in the world. 996 might sound absurd to some of us, but in the academic world 997 is often the norm. It depends how driven in our career we are, after all.

For the majority of human beings on Earth, however, 996 is not the future of work, but a 4-day work week might be. With the 4th industrial revolution, automation and AI, we’ll certainly be able to work less if we so choose. Our skill sets might also increasingly become faster out of date.

Chinese labor laws prohibit more than eight hours of work per day and 44 hours per week in a standard contract, and stipulate that it is illegal to not offer overtime compensation to workers who clock more hours than the legal maximum. But how well are such things enforced?

History tells us that multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labor standards in the pursuit of profit. This isn’t rare. This is how the world works. A deeply ingrained Man’s world where profits come before workers’ rights and human rights aren’t considered in the context of global norms.

The Japanese have been committing suicide due to overwork for decades. 996 is part of a bigger problem where growth is seen as the priority at all costs. Jack Ma recently advocated for China’s “996” workweek, amid protests from employees criticizing the schedule. But what does Jack Ma know about the common Chinese worker?

While Ma and other tech CEOs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos advocate for working longer hours, research finds that excessive overtime endangers employees and does not make them more productive. JD.com’s boss thinks even when family and health concerns come up, employees need to find superhuman ways to cope. That’s not just a violation of human rights, it’s just not realistic.

China’s grueling formula for success — 9–9–6 — is probably outdated. But don’t tell the Chinese Government that. They want to overtake the U.S. economically and technologically in the next fifteen years. It could happen, but 996 won’t be the reason.