Technical progress has hijacked our lives – radically transforming our societies and leaving us to reassess both structures and values. Fundamental is the question of what social meaning work beholds in the future? Will the 4th industrial revolution abolish jobs and increase unemployment? Is an unconditional basic income a realistic solution or simply a utopian idea of leftists?
Why a basic income?
In a not-so-far-away future, intelligent programmes and robots will assume human labour and will do it faster, more efficiently and cheaper. Already, technology has taken over certain areas of work: autopilots control vehicles, machines check our passports, factories produce self-regulatory, and algorithms edit our news feed. Digitalisation of the workplace will revolutionise our society and change the nature of work entirely, across all industries.
Parallel to these transformations, European countries face a rise in unemployment. According to an Oxford study, “The Future of Employment”, up to 36% of jobs are at risk of computerisation in th UK — in the US it is supposed to be as high as 47%.
There is still much dispute over this issue among economists and some argue that many jobs will simply be redefined. However, as occupations disappear and alter rapidly, so must people’s skillsets evolve and many workers will have a hard time adjusting or simply be out of work.
In the face of an advancing automation and rising unemployment in the future, the idea of an unconditional basic income finds growing appeal. The concept is simple – each citizen would be given a periodical payment by the government without any strings attached. Proponents claim that we will soon live in a society where there is no need to work as technological advancements produce our goods for free and jobs are scares. Therefore, each citizen should have the right to a sum of money which will guarantee his existence. Far from new, the idea has its roots in the 15th century. The notion has remained the same: receiving a regular unconditional payment will make people happier, healthier and liberated.
Martin Bohmeyer, who launched the Berlin initiative “Dein Grundeinkommen”, believes in the positive impact of unconditional basic income. His organisation crowd-funds and raffles off a basic income of 1000€ a month for one year. The aim is to find out what happens when we can focus on our life-goals rather than on existential needs. 112 basic incomes have been funded already and while the number is too low to represent a sample for a whole population, an analysis shows that the winners barely change their lifestyles and almost never quit their jobs. The income gives people a newly-found freedom to regain control over their respective lives and liberate themselves from the constraints of money. The certainty of financial stability, whether or not it was already existent in a contestant’s life, releases pressure and gives more space and time to prosper. Listening to Bohmeyer, a basic income seems to be the solution to many of the world’s problems, but is it really that easy?
IS IT REALISTIC?
With Europe’s election year in 2017, the topic has gained traction in political debates throughout the continent. A significant milestone was the 2016 referendum in Switzerland. Although the proposal was rejected by the Swiss, the discussion remained.
In France, a 750€ basic income was central to the programme of Benoît Hamon, who ran for the socialist party. He believes that digitalisation will impact our jobs and, when the time comes, people should have the autonomy to choose how much they want to work. Through the possibility of working less, one can pursue other means of fulfilment. Happier people would thus be more motivated in their work, while society’s purchasing power wouldn’t be affected.
With a population of around 65 million and a proposal of 750€ a month, France would need to spend 586 billion € each year (probably a bit less as children would not receive the full amount). Is such a project even feasible? Hamon and many more politicians and economists have been rich on theoretical ideas, but are lacking a clear notion of how to fund a basic income.
The “Bündnis Grundeinkommen”, a newly-launched one topic party in Germany, was on the voting ballots during the last general elections. For the first time, Germans could vote for basic income, a huge step according to the Bündnis. However, a look at their website reveals a shortcoming on the funding procedure as well. They argue that they first want to ignite debates about the topic and leave the implementation to actual experts. One could argue that introducing an idea without a solid notion of application might be considered an unwise act, just think about Brexit… But a number of philosophers and economists have actually considered the question of how to institute a basic income.
lESS BENEFITS , MORE LAZINESS?
Common to all of them is the need to radically restructure the tax and social system. First, benefits would become redundant, because everything would be picked up by the basic income.
Ideas to fund a valuable income range from taxing data streams, natural assets or simply increase the value added tax. German entrepreneur Götz Werner proposes a consumption tax of 40%, whereas John Thornhill, of the Financial Times, sees data as our new revenue stream for basic income. According to him, Facebook and other big companies, who profit hugely from the data we give freely, should make a bigger social contribution. If we are to believe what Mark Zuckerberg recently said about his ambition to have a positive impact in the world rather than a successful company, would it be so crazy to think that our basic income might soon come from Facebook?
Nevertheless, even if the question of affordability would be out of the way, opponents voice their concern about the consequences basic income would have on work motivation and salary. Instead of being more creative or improve one’s skills, people would be disincentivized to work. Moreover, employers could exploit their workers and pay lower wages in a world where traditional low-wage jobs have been taken over by robots and people are supported by the state allowance.
So, would it just be a gamble to change the working social welfare system? Anke Hassel argues that a basic income is a dead end and would come at the expense of the middle class. Instead of equality there would be an even greater social divide in our society. While those who benefited from academic training would keep their work ethic of studying and improving oneself, working class people will find such an approach hard as basic income would have erased the pressure of working harder. “The rest of society will be much less concerned about this development than they are today, as everyone will be taken care of,” writes Hassel.
Let’s give equality, happiness and prosperity a try
Will resentment grow in our society? If we collectively give money, everyone can have a good life and be secure in times of crisis — so goes the idea behind a welfare state. But we usually want something in return, even if it is just the motivation to find work. Everyone can end up without a job through no fault of their own and our social heart reaches out to them, but does our solidarity go so far as to giving money unconditionally?
Behind the idea of basic income is a lot of conjecture. It is a topic that we can discuss relentlessly, but we won’t know for sure until we try it out. Finland and the Netherlands occupy the pioneering role in this aspect: both have started a trial with other European countries to follow. Marjukka Turunen from KELA says that simply implementing basic income is too radical, which is why they first launched an experiment to see how people behave. In the Finnish trial, 2,000 unemployed people receive 560€ a month. Results can only be expected in two years’ time, but excitement is already high.
So, is basic income a good or a bad idea? Will it be liberating or encourage idleness and exploitation by employers? Who will fund it? There are still many questions with many possible answers. But there is one fundamental question behind all this: What value will work have in the future? Nowadays, we ask what someone is doing and the answer is almost always our job description, no matter if we identify with it or not. Stay-at-home moms or dads as well as volunteers have a hard time getting acknowledged as workers. Although their commitment is one of the most valuable and necessary services to society, they are not recognised as such because of they don’t receive a salary or pay taxes through these occupations.
This understanding of the world might change with advancing automation and its consequences. A basic income might serve as catalyst, while erasing social shaming of benefit receivers. However the future might turn out, revolutionary ideas are the engine to a progressive society. So, let’s be courageous and give equality, happiness and prosperity a try. And maybe our future will soon look like this.