Three years ago I made the mistake of asking the founder of one of China’s leading brands what he did in his free time. He made amply clear that "free time” was something he wanted no part of.
"In the western world, life is number one and work is number two . . . but in China, work is number one and life is number two,” said Wang Chuanfu, head of BYD, the battery-cum-carmaker backed by Warren Buffett. "In my generation, everyone is like this,” he said, and went on to intimate that the Chinese attitude to indolence might explain why China had emerged virtually unscathed from the global financial crisis - and the west had not.
Mr Wang said western food gives him a stomach ache: western notions of leisure doubtless do the same.
But that was three years ago, and three years is a long time in China. Since then, the younger generation of Chinese workers have begun to discover the joys of sloth. Leisure - which has had a bad rap on the mainland - is making a comeback.
A lot of it is sheer exhaustion. China’s one-child generation, born after the introduction of strict birth limits in the late 1970s, spent so much time as children slaving away at the abacus or the keyboard, that they never learnt to enjoy a good day’s indolence. Now, caught tight in a sandwich generation between toddler offspring and retired parents - and with no siblings to help them with the elders - they are burning out.
Newspapers regularly carry stories about white collar workers who die of overwork, or stress-related illnesses. And in 2010, the intensity of their workplace misery caused some workers at Foxconn, the contract electronics manufacturer in China, to jump off tall buildings rather than stay on the job.
"Our parents didn’t need to spend two hours getting to work every day,” says Rey Lee, 31, who has quit her job four times just to take a rest. Chinese workers are famous around the world for quitting their jobs - recruiters estimate turnover at a shocking 20-30 per cent per annum - but this is quitting with a difference: Ms Lee, and many like her, are leaving jobs not for career reasons, but for lifestyle reasons - not to get more pay, but to get more time off. For centuries, the Chinese have been known as a nation with a work ethic on steroids; if they go off overtime now, the effect could be felt around the world.
Kevin Wale, head of GM in China, says urban post-1980s Chinese are "very much into work-life balance”, and are asking for things like time off to look after children or a shorter commute. "That’s something you wouldn’t have seen in China five years ago,” he said recently, adding: "It’s an HR challenge for all of us.”
Edmond Pang, manager of the Shanghai office of Hays, the global recruitment agency, says he has noticed a significant increase in lifestyle-related demands from job applicants over the past year or so - and companies have started to respond. "Candidates prefer companies that promote the idea of no work over weekends. Sometimes, even when we successfully place a candidate in a company where the hours are longer, they will complain and start to look for other opportunities.” He says that many foreign companies have begun offering perks such as gym memberships, flexible hours, no overtime guarantees and remote working. "These overseas trends are coming into China now,” he says.
With a little luck, China’s new taste for sloth could actually work to multinationals’ advantage. After years of cherry-picking the best Chinese candidates for any job, foreign companies have recently begun to lose ground in the mainland talent wars, to Chinese companies that can offer higher salaries and faster career advancement. But if it’s work-life balance that the masses want, well the west knows everything there is to know about gym memberships and flexi-working, telecommuting and company picnics. If it’s low fat they want in the company canteen, the west has been there before.
In fact, there is a certain dj vu about the current generation of Chinese workers: they are often compared with those of 1960s America, a generation that had never experienced a recession, a generation for whom each job was always better than the last - one that believed it could have it all, from kids to careers. Of course, we all know what happened to them: they defaulted on their mortgages. Only time will tell whether the work-life balance will do for the Chinese work ethic what it has done for the American one. Maybe Mr Wang will end up eating a steady diet of sloth after all.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai Bureau Chief.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.