Universal Basic Income, Meaning and Purpose

There is undoubtedly a feeling that we currently live in pivotal times. We are on the precipice of a whole new world, and our decisions now are critical to how we navigate our way through. Huge forces are going to shape the future, and both great promise and risk are ahead. If we take one of those forces, artificial intelligence (AI), it has the potential to radically alter the way our world is structured and, in particular, the work that we do. There is even the promise that AI could put an end to the need for work or, at the very least, create a world where there simply are nowhere near enough jobs to keep every working adult in employment. So how should we navigate such a world?

One potential solution is universal basic income (UBI). UBI is a regular payment to individuals provided by the government without the need for means testing. There are several variations, for example it could be increased with age, but put simply, it would provide everyone with enough to live off and meet their basic needs for food, energy and housing.

UBI has a lot of proponents and is being tested all over the world. The first test in the UK began last year and will run for two years. And it is a theory I have been very interested in for a while. However, I have learned that one of the potential blind spots of our species is that we can fall in love with possible solutions and not anticipate unintended consequences. And many could fall blindly in love with a solution where all of us are given free money without considering the full impact. So, in this article, let’s imagine a world where UBI is economically viable at scale due to the advancements in AI and is being seriously considered.

One potential unintended consequence of adopting UBI worth taking seriously is that work gives people meaning and purpose, even if they don't love their jobs. At the very least, the meaning of work is to provide enough income to live and it gives people some form of structure. And for many of us, our friendships, partners and the skills we acquire are all formed and forged through working. If this were taken away, and we were paid to just be at home would this lead to negative outcomes? If work was largely eradicated and most of us didn’t need to work, many people may begin to feel lost. In a society that is already heavily atomised, people may retreat more from collective pursuits, which could lead to an increase in loneliness. We know that in societies with high unemployment, there is more crime and issues with drugs and alcohol. Could this be a potential knock-on effect of UBI?

I am sceptical that this worst-case scenario would emerge for several reasons. Firstly, we are social creatures by nature, and I believe that the more time we have, the more time we will spend finding our tribe and socialising (with adequate rest for us introverts). Also, research has shown that people who have a positive outlook on their long-term futures invest more in health and wellbeing, not in escapist pursuits such as alcohol and drugs.

But there is a way we could bake in a potential solution to these concerns – we could create a UBI that actually incentivises some of the positive behaviours we want to promote and, therefore, protects against some of the more negative outcomes. For example, UBI could be tiered, where people could be incentivised to earn more by undertaking pursuits that are good for the individual and society. Pursuits which help give us a sense of meaning and purpose. There would be a baseline UBI, enough for everyone to cover their basic needs and have some spare for leisure, and then a tiered incentivised basic income, where the behaviours and actions we want to foster are incentivised.

For example, to increase your UBI payment you would need to do some of the following:

-            Spend time in a care setting, caring for the elderly, caring for the sick or those terminally ill

-            Work in a school

-            Work in a hospital

-            Work on public transport

-            Litter pick

-            Tend to communal green spaces.

These are just a few ideas. Now, on top of this, traditional well-paid jobs would still be available for those who wish to earn even more in, say, finance or business. There could even be behaviours such as exercise and mindfulness that we know have long-term benefits that could be incentivised. I am sure this poses potential dangers and worries of a Big Brother watching over all we do. It's also open to the worry that society may incentivise the wrong things. I share these concerns, but they are worth thinking through, and it is always important to remember that the search for a perfect system will likely be unending.

UBI, for several reasons, has begun to be taken seriously. It has much potential to eradicate unnecessary and preventable suffering in society. For example, many in the UK live with a disability, have care needs and are cared for by loved ones. There are some pots of funding, but not enough, and a lot of this care is unpaid and unrecognised, which has a knock-on effect on finances. UBI could eliminate this economic uncertainty overnight. It would help alleviate the financial strain on these people, and it would help our society recognise the hidden heroes who put in hours of unpaid care or who live with a disability.

In researching this hypothesis, I have tried to find if similar approaches have been tested. However, I could only find an article outlining this approach from an American academic. I made a point to read this article only once I had formulated my own ideas, but there is some definite overlap. So, it seems like some people already have similar thoughts about how we navigate the future of work. Perhaps UBI’s time has come?

As mentioned, far too many people fall in love with political theories and potential solutions and just drive ahead with them, so I am cautious in suggesting that this is the solution to all of our problems. Instead, I believe it is a potential solution which first needs to studied rigorously. We should not just blindly adopt it. In fact, this incentivised approach to UBI is actually intended to deal with the potential unintended consequences of a more general UBI, including a massive loss of purpose and meaning for people. There may still be trade-offs and unintended consequences of an incentivised approach, which need to be taken seriously. However, I am still optimistic that an approach such as this offers the possibility of a better future for all of us. And though it is not always linear, the history of our species shows that the arc of progress bends upwards. However, the research and decisions we make now determine whether that continues.  


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