London perceived as the world’s best city, PwC report shows

London phone box

City rankings are all the rage these days. This year we have seen surveys from Mercer, the EIU and Monocle. Any day now, I’m expecting to see the World’s Best Cities to Celebrate the Festive Season (with the likes of Vienna emerging top again).

Most recently, PwC have joined the throng, revealing the world’s Best Cities as voted for by the public across a range of factors such as politics, food, happiness, culture and business. The report was conducted in collaboration with BAV Consulting, polling 5,200 decision makers, informed elites and other members of the public from 16 countries (I’m not sure why so few countries were targeted) in December 2015.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the so-called “world cities” that dominate international affairs and fill column inches that have won most recognition. They have a left an imprint on the public consciousness.

London (which enjoys by far most media attention in the UK) is seen as the world’s greatest city, with perennial superbrands Paris and New York completing the top three:

    1. London
    2. Paris
    3. New York
    4. Amsterdam
    5. Sydney
    6. Berlin
    7. Tokyo
    8. Toronto
    9. Stockholm
    10. Los Angeles

It’s hard to see London displaced any time soon. Brexit is unlikely to hurt London’s ranking, a question posed by PwC in their report. The UK capital has a history of battling through crises. More than anything, its capacity to remain resilient and reinvent itself throughput the years underlines its appeal, like all successful brands.

Yet while the traditional triumvirate are seen as the most influential, they might not necessarily be the most liveable cities. Young people are keen to move away from expensive cities, and from London in particular.

PwC’s findings are especially interesting as a report was released in parallel showing how cities were performing in “reality”, based on hard facts instead of perception. The report, Cities of Opportunity, showed that while London came top again, Singapore and Toronto emerged second and third best, respectively:

  1. London
  2. Singapore
  3. Toronto
  4. Paris
  5. Amsterdam
  6. New York
  7. Stockholm
  8. San Francisco
  9. Hong Kong
  10. Sydney

It appears that Hong Kong and Singapore have an image problem!

From Keynes to karoshi: the long hours debate continues

Today is World Values Day (apparently), an invitation to reflect on what really matters in life, such as happiness, independence and family.

It’s easy to overlook the things that are important to us as we strive for success, and sometimes it can go too far. In recent weeks, the long hours question has found itself once more in the spotlight. A Washington Post article, Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one, over leaders trumpeting their aversion to sleep, was shared on Linkedin, while tragedy in Japan attributed to karoshi has sparked ongoing debate.

Economists have been wrong about a number of things, but Keyne’s now famous 20th century prediction about working hours is one of the more glaring (and perhaps grating) failures. In 1930 he predicted the working week of his grandchildren’s generation would be reduced to just 15 hours. He was way off the mark. From New York to Tokyo, professionals continue to grind out evening hours and beyond.

Of course, Keynes may yet be right: some commentators are now suggesting the elimination of work altogether by 2050 because of automation (and who knows how that might look). But until that happens, there are alternative models to consider.

The Scandinavian way of life, for example. Sweden famous introduced a 6 hour work day and Denmark’s work day typically ends at 4pm. A former Danish co-worker confirmed this was true, saying that “presenteeism” was, well, absent from Danish workplaces.

But while we can’t all work in Scandinavia, we can take a piece of Scandinavia with us, and I don’t mean shopping for a desk at IKEA. When I attended the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier this year, one name stood out more than most. Tim Ferris, he of “4 Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” fame.

Ferris’ 2007 bestseller described a different approach to work, in that you could eliminate 50% of your tasks in 48 hours (in doing so living the life you want). As a result, the book created quite a stir.

But what’s the reality like? Are freelancers and digital nomads enjoying reduced hours?

I asked London anthropologist Dave Cook, who is conducting a fascinating study into the social and cultural impact of nomads, to shed some light. He explained that, based on his observations:

free from imposed working structures, digital nomads tend to move into a working pattern that is personal to them.

This makes sense. However – and this is surprising – none of the working patterns observed looked anything like the model championed by Ferris:

I haven’t seen anything approaching the ideal of the 4 hour work week. In fact some of the digital nomads I’ve spoken to find the sales rhetoric of some of the self help books such as Ferris, or bloggers who over-emphasise life hacking, quite irritating, because meaningful daily routines can be reduced to productivity problems to be solved.

Indeed, rather than a 4 hour work week, some nomads (bootstrappers, for example) work harder than they would in a conventional day job.

Explaining further, Dave added that there was no conventional working pattern. Much depended on cultural background and level of experience. Some digital nomads are young, with relatively little work experience, while others have fled the “tyranny” of micromanagement and are putting in the hours on their own terms.

And that’s what really this is all about: the freedom to call the shots. Power is now in the hands of the individual, who determines what works best in accordance to their needs, or what is personal to them, as Dave describes it. And that may indeed result in long hours – or failure altogether.

Whether it’s a case of working at a desk in Pudong or from a deckchair in Phuket, work-life balance is evidently less straightforward than it seems.

7 things I’ve learned living in 4 countries over 7 years

Fuji, Japan

In August, I celebrated two anniversaries, one more important than the other. My birthday came first. 10 days later came an even more meaningful date: my expat anniversary. I’d originally planned to be away from home for 6 months. The 7 years since have been the most transformative of my adult life, in ways good and bad (there is seldom a middle ground, as I will explain). At the risk of appearing self-absorbed, here are 7 observations:

  1. I have changed. A lot. It’s an interesting one, this. I began perceiving myself and the world around me differently as the years passed. Exotic backpacker destinations, dripping with mystique, became work and weekend destinations (while still wonderful). Wide-eyed astonishment became a mere curling of the lips. Jakarta? Cool, where’s next? In some cases, marvel turned to indifference, and even cynicism (what’s behind the facade)? My personality, perhaps unavoidably, has also evolved throughout the years. And yet, deep inside, persistent as always, there remains a boy with childlike curiosity.
  2. But this also meant that perceptions back home remained largely unchanged. No matter what you’ve seen or done, or where you’ve been, many people in your home country simply can’t relate to any of it. China will always be egg fried rice and Jackie Chan, and that’s it, and they do business our way, the right way. “Singapore is Malaysia’s capital, isn’t it?” “You spoke at a conference in [exotic city]? That’s nice. What do you think of Brexit?” Employers can’t relate to it either, so it won’t necessarily improve career prospects. They’re not going to salivate over your experience managing a marketing team in Taipei (though you might want to mention that you can speak Chinese, and explain which Chinese).
  3. While Asia’s capitals are looking more and more alike from my perspective – shiny skyscrapers with rooftop bars, gleaming megamalls, identikit airports, acronymed underground systems – the region’s cultures remain uniquely fascinating. Asia’s juggernauts Hong Kong and Shanghai are very different (and yes, I was surprised by this) in ways that include working hours, pace of life and attitude, shaped by all sorts of factors. And although they are often mentioned in the same sentence, world cities like London, Hong Kong and Singapore are bubbles unto themselves. I asked a former colleague in Singapore whether she had visited Kuala Lumpur, literally just up the road, and she answered with, “No. Why would I go there?”.
  4. Their uniqueness does make relocation a challenge. Having to adapt and do things differently from before gets harder every time. Adaptation requires not just changing work behaviours (in itself hard), but also making friends. Integrating with locals and even the expat community can be challenging. Expats, in my experience, are very different from the people you usually encounter back home. They’re typically driven, ambitious, go-getters (I’ve seen a fair few unhinged Patrick Bateman types). They do things to excess. Integrating with the local community means surmounting cultural barriers. Is there a middle way? Perhaps, if you have family; it can be a lonely path otherwise.
  5. Expat life is generally a bipolar one – phenomenal, tough, sober, wickedly drunk, hard work, laid-back work. There is no middle ground. “Normal” living is suspended. Life overseas has its glorious moments, but it also has its uncomfortable elements, and a dark side is never far away. However, crummy you might feel back home, the same sentiment will be magnified a hundred times away from home. Loneliness, a rough day at work, frustration can all feel heightened. There are many foreigners who drink as if the world is about to end tomorrow, from Sanlitun to Soho (I’d say many are borderline alcoholics). Would they booze so much back home? I doubt it.
  6. Perhaps foreigners party a lot because they know their time is up – it’s just a question of when. When I was in Shanghai, I heard it was a transient city. Now in Hong Kong, I hear it’s a transient city. Most foreigners I knew in KL have moved on. There is almost always an end point, especially these days, now that short-term contracts are the norm and expat packages are on their way out. Nothing lasts forever in expat land. Maybe marriage is the answer; I wouldn’t know. Make the most of your time before the plug is pulled.
  7. But life goes on. The expat is dead, long live the expat! I have been fortunate enough to keep going – it really has been down to luck, opportunism and fortitude more than anything. I won’t pretend otherwise. I didn’t plan for a life overseas originally, and I have no idea what the future has in store. But like a lean startup, I will continue to make adjustments here and there, and keep the show on the road.