What would you do if you never had to work another day in your life? That’s not an easy question to answer I realise but take a minute and seriously consider what would you do with the rest of your days. It’s the type of existential thought experimentation undertaken frequently by people with delusions of winning the lottery. But how would you use the opportunity of such ubiquitous and unadulterated free time? Would you pursue enlightenment or frivolously waste it? That would, of course, be your prerogative but thinking about it brings a whole host of interesting feelings and considerations.
Imagine then a world where the government pays every single adult the basic cost of living, regardless of whether you are rich, poor, employed or unemployed. Crucially, everyone gets exactly the same amount with absolutely no strings attached. You literally get money for nothing. The stigmatised system of welfare and benefits has been eradicated and replaced with the means for life.
There are also several additional unintended positives as well: it offers women, forced to endure abusive relationships unable to escape due to dependence, an escape route to self-reliance and financial independence. Public health is improved as the stresses of employment are negated entirely and people are able to focus on their health as populations continue to age.
Perhaps unbelievably, this isn’t just a dream. It has been trialled across the globe on multiple occasions throughout history and is again gaining traction with our political leaders. In fact, almost all of the political parties are signed up to the thought of it in principal. As the welfare state underpinned and defined politics of the 20th century, this new idea, dependent on technological advancement, has the potential to define the 21st.
Universal basic income
UBI, is what I am intimating. I realise it may appear to be a dream perpetuated within an idealist utopia but the general premise of the idea is contagiously spreading like wildfire in mainstream politics. Initially favoured by the left the idea has migrated towards the centre and is being trialled across the globe. In the UK, the Green party has supported a variation of this initiative for decades and it formed a part of its manifesto for the last election. In Scotland, the SNP recently approved a motion supporting the belief that “a basic or universal income can potentially provide a foundation to eradicate poverty, make work pay and ensure all our citizens can live in dignity”. Labour, more holistically, have also begun to approach the idea as a possibility, with government agencies, think tanks and pressure groups investigating ways in which it could potentially be applied. This isn’t some pipe dream which will benefit future generations. This is literally happening right now.
Why? Look around you the answers become more obvious with every iteration of technology. The inevitability of precipitous advancement is guaranteed. Automation is happening right now and it is going to change the way we work and the types of job that require a human touch. Where do all the drivers go when self-driving cars take over? What about restaurant workers upon the advent autonomous food preparatory machinery. In almost every industry the human touch will be replaced with quicker, more reliable and crucially cheaper labour. What will the millions of people who are now obsolete in the world of work do to earn a living? UBI is an action preceding these occurrences. It hopes to negate this catastrophe prior to it occurring. Its an answer to a question before it becomes reality.
Looking further afield, UBI-type experiments are occurring in both India and Brazil right now. The evidence provided by the statistics is startling. The expectation is that if UBI is adopted why would people work? Surely we would witness a mass exodus or extinction of workers. In fact, the evidence is contrary to those expectations. UBI seems to increase an individual’s appetite for work! It makes pre-requisites for work affordable, childcare and transport while simultaneously increasing people’s stability. A pilot is currently live in Utrecht Netherland and on June 5th, the Swiss people will vote in a referendum which would see every adult receive £1,700 a month, with an additional £400 for each child. Talk about forward thinking and alleviation of poverty.
In perhaps the most technologically advances place on earth, Silicon Valley, venture capitalists have begun researching the viability of UBI. Their reason: If we are at the beginning of time where machines will do a lot of the things humans have traditionally done how do we avoid a huge division between those who have wealth and those who don’t? Those who do will benefit by owning the autonomous machinery. Those who don’t will be unemployed. Without UBI, the gap will grow quicker than at any time in human history.
A third of jobs within the retail market in the UK are forecasted to disappear by 2025. This isn’t just a blue collar problem though, professional services will be hugely affected as well with 114,000 legal sector jobs disappearing over the next 20 years. Transport, as intimated previously, is where the biggest losses will be experienced. In the USA alone there are 8.7m people employed in traditional tracking. When this is married to the fact the UK is promising trials for driverless lorries an appreciation for the importance of finding an alternative to the massive impending unemployment is immediately appreciated.
Nick Srnicek, writer of the influential book inventing the future says: “The technology we’re talking about today is really touching on areas that we thought were always going to be the preserve of humans: non-routine tasks, things like driving a car — but then also the automation of basic social interaction, like call-centre work, customer service work and all that kind of stuff. A lot of jobs are going to be taken, possibly at a very rapid pace. That means that, even if it doesn’t lead to mass unemployment, automation leads to a massive shift in the labour market, and people having to find new jobs and new skills.”
How long does will it be before UBI becomes a credible part of mainstream politics?
“Well, I do think this is a long-term project; it’s not going to happen overnight. You need to build it up over time. And you also need to find new revenues for it. So you need to be talking about the Panama Papers and tax havens, and how you’re going to claw back tax revenues to pay for it.”
At What Cost?
There is no escaping that point: a scheme like this is going to cost a lot of money and that has to come from somewhere. At a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the billion dollar tax avoidance of huge multi-nationals, the answer may well be staring us in the face. Without everyone contributing fairly and commesurate to their wealth it may be a possibility. Fortunately politicians are being forced to act by the public. We expect a fairer and better future and we must demand it is delivered to us by those in charge.
Part of the Solution, not the only Answer
I’m not advocating UBI as the only answer to the futures potential problems. On the contrary, I believe it must be viewed through a prism of multiple interconnected plans and proposals. A real solution must be fully developed prior to implementation and questions must be answered. Most importantly, what would a world without work actually mean for mankind? Of course, for millennia, we never worked per se but were tasked with the daily goal of staying alive. Supermarkets, hospitals and housing have long such alleviated those fears so where would life take us without any real need to do anything or purpose for existence?
The first step may be to reduce the work week. It’s a natural progression as we are already used to it. We all probably had a bank holiday Monday this week and loved the extra freedom. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine working only 3 or 4 days a week becasue it is not a huge departure from where we are now.
Action, what action?
Hypothetical talk is cheap but what about action. Green MP, Caroline Lucas, recently table a motion in the house of commons about UBI. So far 32 MP’s have signed up. The main political parties are yet to show their hands but the winds of change are definitely coming.
Do we really only exist to simply to spend a third of our lives working for someone else? Is our sole purpose to enrich the lives of our employers or can we be ‘more’. Would UBI enable us to pursue enlightenment, further our education and cultural identity? We would be free to pursue our passions and contribute to our communities.
What is most compelling is the wider benefits of UBI, in terms of health, education and mental health which is what was found in the example trialled in Manitoba. The contemporary argument about welfare and unemployment benefit has been simplified to are you in work or are you not? UBI provides an alternative which not only alleviates poverty better than welfare ever could but it also improves the health, well-being and education of its people.
The most reasonable proposals involve starting low with a UBI payment of around £77 a month. This would enable a foundation to be established which ensures long-term financial viability prior to over-committing and presiding over its collapse before it could ever begin. If it is established that it does lead to a better society as predicted we can think about rolling it out further and allowing it to grow.
The world is changing and technology is breeding a revolution all while there is a growing distrust of the establishment and status quo. People are looking for fresh answers and a new politics as the rise of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn evidence. Only one thing can be guaranteed change is coming.
UBI might not be the answer but its a starting point for a debate on how we will tackle the inevitable proliferation of technology disrupting and displacing lives more than at any other point in human history.