Is it time for a Universal Basic Income?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the US workforce is experiencing a kind of personality disorder these days. On one hand, low-paid workers in the service sector are fighting to get their employers to give them more hours, as software algorithms make it easier for employers to accomplish “just-in-time” scheduling. On-demand workers are in a constant hunt for their next gig, through apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, Wonolo or Instacart. These apps give workers instant access to temporary work, and take the friction out of billing (and collecting payment from) clients. Automation—whether it’s experienced through the app economy or scheduling software—gives employers the workforce flexibility they want—whether workers are happy with that flexibility or not.

On the other hand, workers with traditional full-time jobs are feeling like they never get to truly leave work behind at the end of the day. Workers with employers that write late-night emails, or saddle managers with the responsibility of working unpaid overtime (because they are technically exempt employees) are left to juggle their personal and work lives—and to feel like they’re constantly failing at both. Working parents and people who are caregivers for their own parents are especially crushed between the need to perform well even outside of “normal” work hours, and also to be attentive to kids or other family members.

For some, freelancing feels like a chance to have flexibility in scheduling, to be able to control your own destiny in ways that full-time employees can’t. Unfortunately, nearly all freelancers have to worry about losing income if they can’t work—whether it’s one day staying home with a sick kid, or for longer periods of time. But freelancers aren’t the only ones struggling in the 21st century to find ways of paying the rent. The actual unemployment rate hovered between 10 & 11% for most of last year, and the World Bank recently estimated that, in order to meet the global need for jobs for youths aged 15-29, we will need to create 600 million new jobs over the next ten years.

The on-demand economy is forcing a national conversation about how to restructure work in the 21st century. More of us are jumping from gig to gig (sometimes in the space of a single day) to get by, and most people under 30 have given up the dream of having a career within a single company—if they ever had it. Millennials have watched their parents and older coworkers struggle with work-life balance, and many have decided that “having it all” doesn’t necessarily have to include full-time work, all the time.

Recent events held by a number of think tanks, have featured policy makers, organizers, and technologists discussing whether it’s time to give serious consideration to creating a form of universal basic income. While the threat of technological unemployment is probably not imminent, there are serious concerns that change will happen in some industries faster than others. Many robotics experts predict that self-driving vehicles will transform the transportation industry over a period of 10-15 years, potentially affecting millions of professional drivers.

Natalie Foster, a fellow at the Institute of the Future and the co-founder of Peers.org (a web community of workers in the on-demand economy) supports universal basic income as a way of easing the transition to a more automated workforce. “Today’s fights are between Uber drivers and taxi drivers, but tomorrow’s fights are between humans and robots,” said Foster. “As more and more jobs become automated, it’s important that we’re prepared for that transition.”

Gerald Huff, a Silicon Valley software engineer who’s studied the issue of basic income thinks it’s inevitable that automation will lead to job loss. “In the auto industry, electric cars & self-driving cars are the most interesting thing happening today. It’s inevitable that we’ll have them eventually—and millions of jobs will be lost due to this evolving technology.” Huff sees machine language programming as “a general purpose technology, like electricity, that will spread at different rates throughout the economy” but ultimately, like electricity, will have widespread adoption in many different industries.

Foster points out that, “despite misconceptions, we actually have a version of income for all in Alaska with the Alaska Permanent Fund, which issues dividend checks to every Alaskan resident each year, based on the oil wealth that they co-own together. Could an American Permanent Fund be a way to create transition income for all, as we march toward technological unemployment?” In addition to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, forms of basic income have been experimented with by some Native American tribes disbursing casino income. The city of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, has also announced plans to experiment with giving payments without conditions to people that currently qualify for social security, as has the newly-elected government of Finland.

Both types of workers being affected by technology could have their lives eased by experiments with universal basic income. The fast food worker struggling to get by in a week that her employer only wants her to work 20 hours, would know for certain that she could pay the rent. The full-time worker, struggling with the demands of balancing a more-than-40-hour workweek with the need to pick her kids up from school and feed them dinner, might decide to voluntarily cut back on her work hours, knowing that her overall income would be unchanged. Basic income might also allow us to return to the days when large numbers of people were able to volunteer with community organizations, in schools, or with senior citizens. If we reduce the need for adults to spend the majority of their waking lives at work, it is certain that some of them will choose to give back to their communities in ways they just don’t have time to do, right now.

As individual workers choose to reduce hours, we will also probably see more job-sharing arrangements. Many employers may find that they have to compete for workers by significantly improving quality-of-life issues on the job, which could include allowing two people to share the duties of what is now one full-time. If we want to achieve the kind of opportunities for today’s youth that the World Bank estimates we need, one way to do that would be to grant everyone some form of basic income, and encourage employers to allow workers to share jobs in ways that let them maximize the knowledge and expertise of incumbent workers, while bringing on the next wave of workers in a part-time capacity.

It will take a big leap, rhetorically, for people to go from thinking “no one who works full-time should live in poverty” to “no one should live in poverty.” Particularly in the US, one’s livelihood is in no small part the key to one’s identity—and the idea that we might all be sliding toward a future with much less work fills some of us with as much dread as it does joy. But Huff believes we’re slowly approaching a future where “people will not make enough money to participate in the economy. Universal basic income is a form of helping capitalism help itself—so that we won’t just rely on human labor as the way we get money to spend.”

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