The Overwhelming 996 Culture
In 2018, I had the opportunity of working with the management of a carbon manufacturing company in quite literally, the middle of China. My colleague and I were there – anchoring a global intervention – focused on the themes of self-reflexivity, meaningfulness, and well-being. We were working with a team of Chinese managers and leaders – men and women in their late 30s or mid 40s, and who were profiled as highly aspirational, diligent, self-sacrificing, and meritocratic.
I was amazed at the sheer capacity for hard work, and perseverance demonstrated by these managers – many of them would commute for hours, or live far away from their families and children, and would strenuously work in a 996 regime (or 9 AM to 9 PM 6 days a week). Personal sacrifices were taken for granted, in fulfilling one’s career aspirations, and I did not hear any moans of the victim or laments of the martyr. The dream of being the largest or the most efficient plant was endorsed by all.
When it came to coaching conversations – these evoked mixed feelings. My clients were dutiful, respectful of authority, highly aspirational and yet quite puzzled when it came to exploring the psychological price of a lack of well-being or meaningfulness. These were warm-hearted, generous, and very intelligent people but some conversations just could not progress beyond intrigue… it was as if one had hit an ideological or a cultural barrier – invisible but visceral.
In many ways, we were doomed from the very start…
The story of Luo Huazhong & Tang Ping
In April 2021, there was a post by Luo Huazhong (username “Kind-Hearted Traveller”) on the internet where he spoke of living a low-key, minimalistlifestyle. He termed it as ‘Tang Ping’ which means ‘lying flat’ – a lifestyle choice where one rejects the societal pressures of doing well in the rat race of hard work, career climbs, fully aware of the diminishing returns, and chooses to lie down flat – where one lowers one’s desires, and becomes more indifferent to the purposive aspirational norms.
Luo’s life journey was quite intriguing – somewhere in 2016, as a 26-year-old, he quit his factory job because it made him feel empty. He then rides on a bicycle, traversing some 2,100 kms across China – from Sichuan to Tibet, and then finally chooses to live in a small-town – Jiande, spending his time reading philosophy, and surviving by doing a few odd jobs. He makes around US$60 a month, and eats only two meals a day.
Luo’s story quickly gained a fan following on social media – his way of life was praised by many, it inspired numerous memes, and it was described as a sort of spiritual movement. Much to the alarm of mainstream media, Tang Ping resonated with a growing but silent majority of Chinese youth, who were getting disillusioned by the officially endorsed “China Dream” – a dream that is built on a life of hard work, and relentless sacrifices, with no actual quality of life or satisfaction to show for it.
A stance on prioritizing frugal living and well-being over materialism and economic growth did not go well with the Chinese Communist party. Over the last five months, government agencies have restricted media on Tang Ping, including disbanding a group of 10,000 subscribers on the net. Selling tang ping-branded merchandise online is forbidden. In May 2021, Chinese state media Xinhua published an editorial asserting that “lying flat” is shameful.
Tang Ping: Resonances in India
The other day, Abhay, a colleague in Reflexive Lenses, was reflecting on how as parents, we need to accept an eventuality that our children would not want to buy new homes, and may actually live with us. I experienced this as a gloomy forecast but in many ways Abhay was quite perceptive. Today, it is much more difficult for a younger adult to subscribe to a 996 culture, while living in urban India, and yet save enough to be able to afford a house in the suburbs and live a lifestyle that we may have lived decades ago.
There are emerging signs and much of this is anecdotal as opposed to data-based trends, where the young adult is beginning to question the lack of choices in front of her or him. Tang Ping would seem quite attractive as a philosophical stance – it is easy to understand, easy to subscribe to, and offers a sense of freedom. Even my young son, stressed with his K12 education demands and the pressure to be eligible for admission in a good engineering college, would jump to Tang Ping. ‘Would an IIT education be worth it?’ is the current crib that I get to hear every other day.
The rat race is impacting many – students, young adults, professionals – who are discovering that the race does not allow much time for intimacy, or for physical well-being, or for communities that we are a part of. Nor are the resources that it promises seem to be attractive anymore.
The promises of materialistic rewards has never looked hollower given the experience of the pandemic in the metros. I have met many high performers, who seem to be recalibrating their life stances and values, having witnessed suffering and trauma.
With the options of working from home or hybrid work models, many employees are re-discovering the value of being at home with loved ones, and how commuting, toxic office cultures, and inane office practices can be so de-energizing.
Professional Gigs that promise discrete projects and assignments seem as more attractive choices for the employee today as opposed to becoming enslaved to oppressive organizational growth agendas.
Tang Ping offers the spiritual scaffolding to make such choices as one tires of consumerism, materialism, and market capitalism.
An old timer would scoff – that Tang Ping is exactly what the Indian mental model was – simple and frugal living and high thinking – but such old timers are not popular in the corporate organizations of the day – are they?
Tang Ping: A EUM Perspective
The EUM framework offers an interesting take on Tang Ping. A holon in the framework – known as Universe of Purpose and Achievement (UPA) inversely measures the propensity towards Tang Ping. High UPA scores often are decoded as the need for purpose, achievement and aspiration that makes the individual human being transcend her or his context.
Low UPA scores would imply the inverse – a possible disdain towards purpose and achievement, and a deep resistance to the seduction of transcending one’s context.
What i love about the EUM framework is that the low scores of UPA also enable us to probe, how the individual is compensating for Tang Ping – the other five universes including One’s need and pull for intimacy and meaningfulness, or the stoic demands of roles and boundaries or even the need to belong are interesting choices to explore.
Tang Ping would imply that some other aspect of one’s own identity processes become more alive – and just Tang Ping alone would not help an adult deal with the travails of the rat race one finds oneself in. What is even more important to explore is the denial of the need for transcending one’s context, and how this manifests as ‘possible shadows’ in other aspects of identity.