Universal Basic Income and the Future of Work


Thu, 11/09/2017 - 10:40am



If you’re paying attention at all, you know that the world of work is changing. We’re shifting to a gig economy, which is really a hip way to say “precarious work”, we’re in an age enamoured of austerity policies, which tend to slow economic growth, and we’re seeing an increasing concentration of wealth. This is less true in Canada than in other countries, but it remains true. The rich are getting richer, and the middle class is eroding.

Add to this the increasing job losses that are resulting from better technology. We’ve seen in the last forty years or so that manufacturing has shifted dramatically because of increased automation, and we’re starting to see that artificial intelligence will soon be able to take over other jobs that have so far been the purview of humans. It’s one thing for a robot to do precise repetitive tasks, like spot welding, but AI is now helping build computer code, assist in financial transactions, and drive.

We’ve got two huge forces that are converging to shake up the economy as we know it. So how are we going to handle this? Is there a place for people in this new economy? This new economy may require a radical shift in thinking about our economic system. Currently, our wages are generally tied to perceived value. It’s not strictly true (is a financial advisor really worth more than an elementary school teacher or day care provider?), but that’s the basic idea. You work, you get money, you spend the money. And so it goes.

One possible way to avert the disaster of mass unemployment that has been floated is the idea of a Universal Basic Income. That cycle of work for money ceases to be an effective way to manage an economy or a workforce if there’s no work, or the work is inconsistent, or if the work doesn’t pay enough. The idea of a Universal Basic Income is to uncouple money from work.

This isn’t to say that it’s the only idea, or even that it’s the best one. But it’s an interesting idea nonetheless. What it means, to put it simply, is that everyone is given some money. Everyone: working or unemployed, disabled or able, rich or poor. A small additional income will be nice, but not essential to someone who is already working steadily, but imagine the difference it would make to someone living in poverty.

There are advocates for this idea at every point of the political spectrum. The far left sees it as a way to help the most vulnerable and marginalised member so the population. The right sees it as a way to remove the inefficiencies of the current patchwork of welfare systems: disability pensions, employment insurance, and what used to be called welfare.

It’s also not without its critics. Some complain that money for nothing will make people lazy, and that it’s essentially immoral. Others, like Joseph Stiglitz, caution that it isn’t enough.

Currently, some governments are running experiments to see how effective it may be. Finland has begun by giving 2,000 citizens 560 Euros a month. Ontario’s own experiment began this summer, too.

It’s certainly worth exploring. What’s most interesting to me is how it will affect work. Currently, a person’s primary motivation for employment is economic. If financial needs are taken care of, what will be our incentive then? I’d hope it’s passion. I’d hope that we could do work that we loved not for money, but for satisfaction. There will be people, I’m sure, who simply collect the money and do nothing else. But most of us will still work. Some of us will volunteer more. Many of us will be able to work less.

It’s the future we were promised, after all.