The danger of so-called “free money” not only underpins critiques of universal basic income (UBI), but also the incredibly strong narratives that underlie the attitudes to work in the UK (and elsewhere) – and our unemployment benefit system. Paid employment is held up as one of the ultimate markers of being a valuable member of society, with those not in paid work (always described in these narratives as a voluntary position, rather than as the result of issues outside their control) seen as a drain on society. Those out of work are positioned in direct contrast to those in paid employment: the shirkers versus the strivers, the “welfare dependent” versus the hardworking families.
For those in paid work, working hard and being constantly busy are worn as a badge of pride, and there are whole industries promising to make us more productive and efficient. For some, hard work is enforced through workplace monitoring, impossibly short breaks or expectations of staff being “always on”, for example responding to emails outside work hours. Work is idealised as providing meaning in our lives, while at the same time removing us from other sources of meaning, such as family, friends and our communities, through long hours and unpaid overtime. The negative psychological, social and physical effects of these narratives and assumptions are now being investigated, and the centrality of work in our lives and society questioned.
Preliminary results from Finland’s basic income experiment found little to no impact on recipients’ likelihood of undertaking paid employment. This has led some to suggest that the experiment is a failure – indeed, the Finnish government had hoped the plan would increase participation in paid work. However, although it was not a trial of a full UBI (universal, unconditional, non-withdrawable and non means-tested) it is being celebrated by many who advocate for the idea, as it provides important evidence about the interaction of UBI and work. One of the major objections is that getting “free money” would undermine recipients’ motivation to undertake paid work: the Finnish case shows this is not so.
The notion that paid employment is the cure to all ills has been seriously undermined, if it were ever true. Work as the best route out of poverty may still hold true for some, but the majority of households in poverty in the UK are now consistently those with at least one person in work. The likelihood of people becoming stuck in low-wage, low-skilled work is significant, and hard work among the lower paid is doing nothing to reduce economic inequalities. Coupled with the potential threat to many jobs and industries from automation and AI (although we need to be careful not to overstate this), the relentless prioritisation of paid work seems less defensible.
Whether we derive meaning from employment, or find ourselves engaged in meaningless “bullshit jobs” as David Graeber suggests, we cannot deny that the world of work is changing. Climate change, mass migration and continued technological change will all have impacts on what “work” means and looks like in ways that we cannot accurately predict.
For its proponents, a UBI can provide a lifejacket and a route through some of these challenges. A UBI could provide a stable income floor, a guaranteed minimum below which no one would fall. Depending on the amount paid, it could enable low-paid workers to turn down the worst jobs on offer, or enable time away from paid work to retrain, or start a business. It would financially compensate those (usually women) caring for family for their work, support more people to be creative, to volunteer, or simply to do nothing. In the US, proposals for a Green New Deal led by Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey appear to advocate for something like a UBI – potentially for those “unwilling” to work, although it is light on detail.
A UBI is not designed to promote “laziness” or any other type of behaviour, simply to allow individuals to make their own decisions about how they wish to spend their time. The pure idea of a UBI does not hold any inherent position when it comes to paid work, but promises freedom and choice. As far back as the 1880s, in the work of Paul Lafargue, the right of workers (as opposed to the rich) to be lazy was framed as an explicit rejection of the dominant work ethic, and the route to true independence, free from the pressure to work. The refusal to participate in paid employment is still considered by some as an active strategy of resistance to neoliberalism. A UBI as a way to live securely without paid employment features regularly in mainly leftwing discussions about post-work, interrogating the centrality of paid employment in our lives and societies, and our ability to liberate ourselves, or be liberated from, our roles as paid workers.
In reality, the likelihood of any western country introducing a UBI at a rate to enable the average worker to entirely opt out of paid employment is extremely low (in Finland, participants received €560 (£475) a month, in Ontario, participants were guaranteed a minimum income of $16,989 (£13,185) a year). Most of the current trials around the world actively frame UBI as a pro-employment policy, smoothing the sharp edges of benefit systems and the insecurities of the modern labour market, to make paid employment more feasible, attractive and sustainable. The utopian vision of a life of leisure in which a UBI offers us a comfortable standard of living is not about to become reality, but the ideas of working less, and receiving a stable, humane basic income are gaining traction and starting to influence debate in ways unthinkable even 10 years ago.
• Anna Dent is a freelance policy and research consultant