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.

The Beach 20 years later: spirit lives on in digital nomad tribes

Matinloc Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Today is a remarkable anniversary. Alex Garland’s The Beach was published 20 years ago (younger people might recognise Alex as the director of Ex Machina). What’s remarkable is that it’s only been 20 years. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since: ICQ (yes, that long ago), Google, the iPod, MySpace, Facebook, the smartphone, the Millennial, Tesla, the selfie, Instagram, #sorrynotsorry. It has been a period of enormous change, for better or for worse.

Looking at it now, The Beach evokes “end of an era” and end of innocence feelings, and not just because disillusioned Richard left the hidden paradise he called home. It really was the fin de siecle: the end of the 1990s, the end of the 20th century, and the end of simpler times as we knew them, when care-free hedonism and dial-up connections reigned.

Soon after reading the now cult classic and watching the Hollywood movie when they emerged, I travelled to Southeast Asia for the first time. I felt like a novice backpacker like Richard, armed with a knackered copy of the Rough Guide and a traditional camera with 3 rolls of film (no digital cameras then, let alone smartphones), staying at cheap Malaysian guesthouses, popping into “cyber cafes”, and staring wide-eyed at the sheer exoticism of the Far East, as the region was still called then in that quaint pre-globalisation way.

Seven years later, I unexpectedly returned to Kuala Lumpur – this time in a suit, my own “innocence” lost. And this time, I stayed.

Hopping about frequently in Southeast Asia, I never forgot The Beach and the hope that there was a mystical idyll out there somewhere, buried in the South China Sea or hidden in the Indonesian archipelago. I was fortunate enough to encounter extraordinary beaches and fascinating characters, but The Beach as described in the book, a tropical shangri-la, was forever elusive.

And yet, while the untainted paradise beach will likely stay a myth, the utopian spirit of The Beach lingers on. Its post-911, post-capitalism incarnation can be seen in the form of co-working spaces, filled with digital nomads who get about using apps such as Airbnb and Waze.

Like The Beach’s main character, digital nomads also flock to Thailand (although the book’s original location was The Philippines), to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Krabi, making connections and living the dream. And with the passing of Richard’s generation into middle age gloop and suburbia, the baton has been passed to globetrotting Millennials, themselves looking for purpose.

Travel might no longer be romantic, as it surely was pre-internet, but the essence of what made The Beach special – the pursuit of a more spiritual, community-minded and more “authentic” alternative to everyday life – endures to this day.


Digital Nomad Conference comes to Bangkok: reactions in social media

Digital Nomad Conference speakers

Spanning 3 days in Bangkok, the Digital Nomad Conference was billed as the place to be for digital nomads and online entrepreneurs. Judging by social media reactions and interactions with some of the people who attended, it didn’t disappoint.

The conference sprung to life on Monday evening with a pool party, with the main event – a day of talks – following the next day. The venue on the day was a charming cinema (movie theater to those across the pond) called Lido, with an even more charming cinema (Scala) providing the scene for lunch.

The range of speakers was, on the whole, reasonably balanced. Some of the names on stage offered practical advice, while others were more anecdotal, motivational, and verging on the spiritual. All drew positive feedback on Twitter from different sections of the audience, though there were critical remarks thrown in too. There was also interactivity, in the form of finding a partner, “matchmaking” with a chance to win a compelling Coworkation prize, and the odd dance or two.

At the end of the day, I was left with the overriding impression that digital nomadism was a liberating lifestyle choice (the principle of freedom is at its heart), but one that came laden with challenges. It might look plain-sailing (speaker Dave Cornthwaite commented on social media masking the “suffering” behind the scenes), but in reality a nomadic lifestyle is messy and fraught with complications, requiring unconventional approaches – acute discipline and planning, for example, pragmatism and opportunism.

We can’t all (realistically) traverse the Sahara upside-down on a hoverboard, but we can nonetheless commit to finding that formula in life which enables greater personal “freedom”, from using better tools (Natalie Sisson, Jasper Ribbers) to trying more effective strategies (Chris Dufey, Fabian Dittrich) and cultivating a different mindset (Dave Cornthwaite, Jana Schuberth, Fabian Dittrich).

But freedom also comes with responsibility. One of the more telling remarks came from Steve Munroe of Hubud in Bali, who compared – unfavourably – digital nomads to tourists. He advocated the need for “co-giving”, explaining that digital nomads wanted to connect meaningfully with the local community, rather than operate in isolation. Looking around the room and seeing mostly non-Asians, I got the sense that the digital nomad “tribe” was still largely a confined bubble – one that will no doubt evolve.

And that is perhaps the second “takeaway” I took from the event – that while there is a digital in “digital nomads”, nomadism is in essence about people – and humanity.

Speakers aside, there were brief words from Nomad Pass and British anthropologist Dave Cook, who sought participants for his digital nomad study.

Main event

Fabian Dittrich mirrored earlier speaker Dave Cornthwaite through recounting his adventures around the world, before picking up a guitar and crooning:

Fabian’s thoughts on luck appeared to resonate with the audience. Serendipity is a “skill” that one can cultivate, the speaker reasoned. Is it that simple?:

Consultant Jana Schuberth delved into the emotive and pyschological, encouraging self-reflection and reaching out to our fellow humans:

Not everyone appeared in favour of the more introspective elements, however…

Dutchman Jasper Ribbers offered advice on creating engaging video courses:

Hubud’s Steve Munroe touched a chord through outlining a co-giving programme in Bali:

Chris Dufey urged the audience to think and act bigger, and shared tips on how to get more impressive numbers:

British adventurer Dave Cornthwaite entertained and inspired the audience through sharing his madcap escapades:

Natalie Sisson, apparently very attached to suitcases, impressed the audience with her practical tips:

Setting the right tone:

Pre-event (the pool party)

Digital Nomad Conference proceedings kicked off with beer by the pool at AmBar, a rooftop lounge bar in Bangkok: