New Zealand is the latest country to toy with the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) – the idea that an unconditional fixed amount of money should be paid to all citizens as a supplement to additional state welfare.
Andrew Little, New Zealand's Leader of the Opposition confirmed his Labour party is considering the proposal. He said: "We are keen to have that debate about whether the time has arrived for us to have a system that is seamless, easy to pass through, [with a] guaranteed basic income and [where] you can move in and out of work on a regular basis."
The Kiwis are following in the tracks of the Finnish, Dutch, Swiss and Canadian in giving serious consideration to the idea. In the UK, Green MP Caroline Lucas has become a flagwaver for the campaign, and now even Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is considering UBI as part of his new economic policy.
However, in a country where ‘hard working families’ are wheeled out at every PMQs as exemplars of British values, it seems difficult to envision selling a policy that encourages unemployment to the electorate.
Critics say it will usher in a new era of fecklessness. Declan Gaffney wrote in The Guardian: “Unless we are completely relaxed about long-term worklessness – and all the evidence tells us we should not be – some form of conditionality seems to be essential.”
Work and respectability, remain closely knitted in the British psyche as a result of the legacy of a Protestant work ethic. It was not long ago that toil and suffering indubitably led to salvation in the afterlife. Similarly, hardship and denial of free time led inexplicably to and improvement of circumstances in this life. Working class people could learn a trade, work their way up the ladder and obtain the Holy Grail of middle class respectability.
With such values, why would we encourage offensive idleness with UBI?
If we are to adopt a guaranteed wage for all citizens in the UK, we need to get over the blind veneration of work for work’s sake in this country. Only 13 per cent of people find their job engaging. A poll conducted in the UK revealed that one in four Brits wants to quit their current job. Half admitted they dread Mondays.
We work increasingly long hours for less pay with no job security in return. In a turbulent economy financial insecurity has been transferred from employers onto their workers. Rising automation means that there will be fewer jobs in the future, and those jobs that will remain will be radically different.
UBI is an initiative that will demonstrably ease the course of the future changes all of us will have to face.
By providing a basic income people can choose to stay in work or leave. Precarious work - where workers shoulder the emotional and financial burden of not knowing when the next pay check is coming in - becomes ‘voluntary flexibility’ where people work because they want to. This means employers will have to provide incentives for them to stay in work and automate the jobs they really don’t want to do. This will create a positive feedback loop, spurring further automation.
With growing automation there won’t be enough jobs, meaning job shares and shorter working weeks will become commonplace. People will have to rediscover value in leisure, volunteering and unpaid work. UBI would also reward the unpaid work that many already do, but - just don’t get paid for - care work, for instance.
In the long term, UBI would also allow people to retrain and explore new options for their careers. UBI wouldn’t mean the end of work altogether, it would means allowing people from all backgrounds the freedom to decide what it is they want to do.
It is time the UK banished its protestant work ethic hangover and celebrated the value of the activities achieved outside of work. Work isn’t going to save us anymore, but UBI might just.
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