While we barbecue, the Chinese are working


I'm looking forward to the three-day Memorial Day weekend as much as anybody. It's a great respite from the five-day routine, plus it signals the start of the summer slack-off season. But I've come across some interesting new data that will probably make me a little bit anxious while I'm munching coleslaw in the backyard: Millions of high strivers in countries like India, China, and Singapore are much more willing to forgo these kinds of holidays—and other lifestyle privileges–in order to get ahead.

Business leaders in North America, Europe, and Asia all work about the same: roughly 10 hours a day. But Americans complain a lot more about striking the right balance between our work life and family life. Development Dimensions International, the human-resources firm, recently did a survey of business leaders in the United States and in China. Some provocative findings:

  • In China, 23 percent of business leaders complain about the amount of work they do. In the States the figure is more than twice as high: 49 percent.
  • Chinese businesspeople are more satisfied; 80 percent feel they have work-life balance. Only 69 percent of American businesspeople feel the same way.
  • Business leaders in China are gluttons for punishment, too—93 percent say they'd be willing to sacrifice more free time to get ahead in business. Only 66 percent of Americans say that.
  • Americans aren't lazy. We all know people who work a full day and bring work home for evenings and weekends. And many parents do that while juggling kids. But Americans have developed expectations that border on unreasonable: prosperity, leisure, and fulfillment, all at once, plus we have a mentality that leads us to believe we're entitled to these things. In the 1990s, books like The Overworked American led us to think we deserved to work less and relax more, just like Europeans who routinely get six weeks of vacation every year. (Can anybody explain why growth rates are so low and unemployment so high across Europe?)

    Expectations like those are even being formalized in corporate America. A recent Wall Street Journal article described how the board of ConAgra has agreed to pay for a corporate jet so that CEO Gary Rodkin can commute between company headquarters in Omaha and his home in Greenwich, Conn.

    In Asia, the lifestyle issues that have formed their own industry in the West still barely register.

    "In China, India, and Singapore, they're not talking about work-life-balance issues," argues David Heenan, author of Flight Capital. "They're working like crazy and taking no prisoners." Much of that has to do with recent—and ancient—history. America has been one of the world's most prosperous nations for decades. China, like India, is just beginning to taste prosperity. We're satiated. They're still lean and hungry. Like Americans 100 or 150 years ago, the new Asian capitalists are willing to sacrifice their personal lives for the once rare opportunity to improve their lives and maybe even get rich.

    The rewards of leisure and family time, of course, are among the things that motivate people to get rich. Who doesn't want to retire at 50, wealthy enough to do little more than play golf, socialize, volunteer, and cultivate a covey of grandchildren? Well, not the Chinese, evidently. Not yet, anyway. Puzzle this one out: While 45 percent of American business leaders find their personal life more fulfilling than their work life, only 3 percent of Chinese business leaders feel that way. There's something about work the Chinese must really love–which makes sense, if you think about it. Entrepreneurs in China today are the first of a generation that is building a new kind of country. They're greatly improving on the lives their parents lived and hoping to offer even more to their kids. And they are discovering the excitement of opportunity—and the ability to capitalize on it.

    As developing countries become wealthier (and more golf courses get built), a robust leisure life will become more of a priority. David Tessman-Keyes, a senior vice president at DDI, predicts that the relentless work ethic could even backfire for companies in China that don't encourage workers to slow down and pace themselves. "They better offer a little more balance, or they'll lose the best workers," he suggests. Now that's a comforting thought for a long holiday weekend: Time off is a reward for being at the top of your game. Works for me. But I'll still be checking my E-mail in between burgers.

    --Rick Newman