With a universal income, will we stop working?

Dec 21, 2022

3 mins

With a universal income, will we stop working?
Céline MartyLab expert

Researcher on the philosophy of work.

Why do I feel alienated at work? Where does this mandate to be productive come from? What professions do we as a society really need? Stuck between our jobs and the existential questions they entail, we sometimes feel like we don’t know anything about anything anymore. But Associate Professor of Philosophy Céline Marty is summoning the greatest philosophers and thinkers in the labor market to not only identify problems in the workforce but also propose solutions for them.

As we continue to hear that we are experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, some countries like Spain are introducing a universal income which would allow the unemployed to survive and the economy to revive itself through unabated consumption. But how can a nation justify handing out money to all of its inhabitants without taking any factors into consideration?

Universal income, also called unconditional basic income or universal allowance, is a fixed sum which would be given to all individuals without conditions of their profession, compensation, or resources. It was a proposal from former French socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon in 2017, however it’s come up several times in history by various philosophers, writers, and politicians.

A salary for life

The methods of applying a universal income vary enormously but we can distinguish two trends: the liberals (who are on the political right in Spain) propose a universal income of a rather low amount, between €500 and €700 per month, and would come from combining various social allowances already in place and supplementing whatever else is needed. This salary would be in addition to what workers earn in the labor market, offering just enough financial padding that everyone would be able to choose their jobs with more flexibility and allow bosses to give one-off assignments rather than permanent contracts.

On the political left, the universal income envisaged is of a higher amount, around €1,000 per month and its aim would be to allow everyone to live emancipated from the job market if they chose to be (though for €12,000 a year in Europe, one would have to be quite conservative with their spending). This version of universal income as a replacement for wages rather than a supplement is interesting because it radically questions our relationship to work as well as to the economic market.

Universal income becomes a means of freeing ourselves from the arbitrariness of the job market. It allows those who cannot find a job to live properly. It allows students to focus on their studies without having to do odd jobs on the side. And finally, it guarantees stability at the end of the month to those who work in precarious or low-paid jobs, such as artists, auto-entrepreneurs, farmers, or volunteers. In short, the left’s idea of universal income makes it possible for people to pursue endless activities that are not remunerated by the economic market but which have considerable social importance nonetheless.

Indirect social utility: a paradigm shift

It is fair to ask what will happen to menial but necessary jobs if everyone is able to emancipate themselves from the labor market. What happens to sanitation and sewage workers, fast food workers, house cleaners, bus and lorry drivers, factory workers, or grocery store employees? Many of these jobs’ presence in society were taken completely for granted until the early months of COVID when we were all made starkly aware of how essential they were to the functioning of our towns and cities. But in such a system, wouldn’t most people just stop working?

The jury is out on the “unsexy” jobs, but it is likely that many people would continue to work in the functions and fields that interest them—under better conditions. They would be less subject to imperatives of productivity and financial stress, and would therefore be able to make demands on their working environments. Similar to shifts being seen today within the Gen Z workforce, employers would have to prove what they could offer their employers.

They could also take breaks to train for other skill sets, travel, raise children, and take care of elderly relatives; so many situations that today depend on our financial status. It also allows people to project themselves into long-term projects that hold meaning to them, rather than remaining in the short-term, anxious, hand-to-mouth realities under which so many people live.

Finally, universal income would allow people to take a step back and consider the economic results of a wholly autonomous society; that reducing people’s need for work would also most likely reduce the mass production, and therefore consumption, of superfluous consumerism. But above all, it would allow them to be much more involved in other political, associative, personal and family activities,

And perhaps someone considered idle within the framework of our current way of living might suddenly find a social utility by taking care of their elderly parents, contributing to their local community, taking care of stray cats in the neighborhood, playing music, keeping the local kids busy. Actions that have zero economic impact, but might have a lasting effect in a community.

And you, what would you do if you received enough money to live without compensation?

This article is from the sixth episode of our series that crosses philosophy and work, Philo Boulot. It was written and produced in partnership with the YouTube channel META.

Translated by Jordan Nadler

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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