Universal Basic Income is hot news. As support for it grows across the political spectrum, governments around the world are embarking on pilot studies to evaluate its potential. In a study currently being conducted in Finland, participants are reporting lower stress levels and a greater incentive to work. With record levels of reported stress, and the job market in the UK becoming harsher and more competitive, it’s time the UK seriously considered introducing a Universal Basic Income.
For many people in Britain today, the reality is that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Of course, people have lived like this for millennia, and still do in many parts of the world. But in Britain, we thought we had put that behind us. The post-World War II settlement promised support “from cradle to grave”: secure jobs, sufficient income to support a family, quality housing at reasonable rents, decent pensions for the old, a safety net for people who couldn’t work and universal healthcare.
This settlement is now being progressively shredded. For many people, secure employment providing sufficient income to keep a family is now a pipe dream. Casual employment, enforced self-employment, zero-hours contracts and other forms of insecure work mean constant stress and worry for an increasing number of people. Will they get paid in time to pay the bills, and will the money be enough for them to have both food and warmth?
The safety net on which the sick, disabled and unemployed relied is in tatters. People who are unable to work through no fault of their own live with constant stress and worry. If they are unemployed, will they be sanctioned for being late for their job centre appointment, and lose all means of support for weeks? If they are sick or disabled, will they suddenly be classified as “fit for work” and lose the benefits they have relied upon for years?
This is the reality of life for a growing number of people in the UK. It is degrading and humiliating to live like this, damaging to mental health and often to physical wellbeing too.
UBI ensures that everyone, regardless of circumstances, has the essential means to live. People with insecure work don’t have to worry about whether they will earn enough this week to pay for food. People who are unemployed can take the time to search for the right job. People who are sick, or who have caring responsibilities, or who want to improve their skills through studying, can reduce their working hours or take a break from paid work.
There would be important economic benefits too. The way we organise work at present is highly inefficient. UBI offers the potential for a much more productive deployment of people.
Forcing people to do any job just to survive is a shocking waste of human capital. Humans are not robots. We are an ingenious, creative, curious species. Innovation is our birthright. Yet far too many people are unable to think, imagine, design, create, because they are too busy juggling multiple drudge jobs and worrying about where the next meal will come from. The stress of constantly trying to meet fixed obligations from insecure income eats at the mind, destroying intelligence and creativity, turning the brain to porridge. We are not robots – but living like this, we become like robots.
Of course, there is nothing new about this. The factories of bygone years were populated with hordes of human robots, doing the same thing day in, day out. But roboticising humans was merely a stop-gap. Increasingly, real robots are being designed that will do routine work considerably better. For some people, this creates an opportunity to do exciting new work in partnership with robot colleagues. But too many others, displaced by robots, are being relegated to an insecure, poverty-stricken existence. Humans, wasted.
When people have a basic income that meets their essential needs, they will no longer need to compete with robots for work. They will be free to design work that uses their unique human abilities. Not only will this restore their dignity, it will also spur the advance of technology into areas where robots have failed to make much impact because people are cheaper.
I often hear people saying, “But how will we afford UBI?” To my mind, we can’t afford NOT to afford it. Our economy is stagnant, our productivity is poor. Yet we are wasting people’s talents. By freeing people from drudgery and enabling them to make best use of their skills and abilities, UBI can raise productivity. And by removing worries about “how will we live?”, UBI could bring about the explosion of entrepreneurialism that is needed to revitalise our economy.
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