Several forces are coming together at once. Capitalism appears to be broken. A stunning number of people hate their jobs – and view them as a pointless waste of their lives for money – and yet, terrifyingly, this grindingly tedious necessity may be about to be stolen from us by machines. This has left many people arguing that Universal Basic Income (UBI) – which gives people free money just for living – could be the answer.
There are a number of facets to this whole problem. Firstly, there is little doubt most people simply do not like their jobs. Gallup research from a few years back shows that feedback from adults from 142 different countries reveals on average 63% are not engaged and 24% are actively disengaged by their work. A breakdown of results by region can be found below.
Secondly, there is not too much doubt that automation will cull a large number of existing jobs. However, estimates vary on the sheer scale of this. It is also hard to accurately guesstimate how many new roles – many of which humanity simply may not have thought up yet – will get created in their place. (A decade ago would you have dreamt of the slew of marketing jobs loosely based around stalking people round LinkedIn?) While how we prepare for the future jobs that don’t exist is already the subject of endless industry debate.
Justin Lyon, founder of cloud simulation platform, Simudyne says: “Both blue and white collar workers will be affected by automation. [And] most of the jobs that we are educating our younger generations for will be gone or on the decline by the time they enter the job market. Law, medicine, accounting are just some of the professions that will be losing a lot of people to automation.”
Whatever the true scale of this future automation though, as Kit Cox, founder and CEO of eNate points out: “UBI is just one of a number of possible ways to tackle the fact that increased automation undermines the principle of Capitalism and its ability to distribute wealth across the population. In my view, it is the worst approach currently under discussion.”
It is still impossible to ignore the attention UBI is getting at present. Last year 78% of the Swiss population voted again it in a referendum. Yet it is currently being tested in Finland and Kenya – this excellent in-depth article in the New York Times looks at the Kenyan experiment in some detail – while many advocates are touting it as the best possible future for mankind.
The World Economic Forum explained in depth, this January, exactly why we should adopt Universal Basic Income. The thrust of the argument is that it is fairer, ‘affordable’ – “closer to an additional tax revenue requirement of a few hundred billion dollars – or less – depending on the many design choices made” – and it could fundamentally change our attitude to work.
“People will be finally free from daily drudge and able to pursue their passions, have fun or just watch TV all the time if they so choose,” Lyon of Simudyne tells IDG Connect. “As a result, the work we do could be more human focused rather than outcome focused.”
“A UBI does not have the same social stigma as being on the dole so psychologically, it could motivate people differently and make them feel empowered and more receptive to retraining and finding meaningful ways to fill their time on earth,” he adds.
Yet it hard to disregard the seemingly ‘human imperative’ to work. John Maynard Keynes was predicting a 15 hour working week because of industrialisation a century ago. Instead people are working harder, clinging to what David Graeber might describe as ‘bullshit jobs’ – a meaningless slog of employment which is often questionable in both its purpose and true economic gain.
Cox of eNate suggests: “Keynes could only see an economy where the overriding human skill used was muscles; he didn’t foresee the rise of the service economy where the overriding human skill used to create the ‘product’ was knowledge. It is possible that we will see another new type of economy emerge – potentially the artisanal economy – where the economic value in a product is directly placed on the skill and care used to create it. While UBI is a legitimate attempt to support the rise of this new economy, it cannot be seen as an end in itself.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing to square about UBI though is that this is a solution that is championed by individuals on both sides of the political spectrum. This means it could be rolled out in a variety of ‘flavours’. So, while its introduction would inevitably involve the cutting of certain public benefits, the level of this would depend on who executed the logistics.
Husayn Kassai – who studied Economics and Management at Oxford University before co-founding background checks company Onfido in 2012 – is a strong proponent of UBI. He says some versions of UBI entail more spending on all public sector services – education and healthcare – and should be seen as part of “redistributive drive” rather than a direct choice between public spending or not.
It would require an overhaul of existing systems though and this would not be good for everyone. “UBI will inevitably require changes to the employment legislation framework, so organisations will equally have more choice, as they may be freed from the constraints currently imposed by unions and workers councils,” suggests Cox of eNate.
In the end, it may be tempting to see UBI as a silver bullet to all the world’s woes, but in reality this is unlikely to prove case. UBI is one potential solution to the massive social upheaval taking place in the wake of new technological advance, but like any ‘digital transformation’ project, it is unlikely to be as smooth in practice as it might sound on paper.
Many people are strong believers though. Lyon of Simudyne concludes: “There is no blueprint for humanity that says things have to be done this way or that. We are constant social tinkerers. We can create a much better world for ourselves, a world without work.”
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