Universal Basic Income could be an opportunity to re-think our relationship with work

Social policy influences our perceptions of the world. It determines which and how we address human needs and challenges. With a Federal election around the corner in Australia, this post looks at Universal Basic Income – one of the three main policies of a U.S. 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate – and asks: could it be an opportunity to reconsider what work means to us? This post was written by UNSW Scientia PhD scholar Axelle Marjolin.

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI) is intrinsically linked to the idea of work, and relatedly money. Indeed, a main reason why UBI is back on the social policy agenda relates to concerns about the future of work and raising inequality.

As AI and technology advance, an increasing number of people will face redundancy, or precarious employment conditions. Already, being employed is not a guarantee of not being in poverty.

By decreasing people’s reliance on work as a source of income, a UBI is one possible response to these problems.  

Acting as a safety net, UBI can increase employees’ bargaining power, encouraging an improvement in working conditions. A UBI can also enable people to pursue opportunities they may not have otherwise, out of financial concerns.

This includes pursuing entrepreneurial ventures or engaging in work that is not supported by the market but with positive benefits for society, like pursuing art or volunteering.

But perhaps more interestingly, by freeing us from the shackles of having to work to survive financially, a UBI presents us with an opportunity to reconsider our concept of work, and what we value as a society.

Imagine if no Australian had to work to afford a minimum standard of living?

Imagine if you could leave your job at any time, knowing that you would still be looked after rather than looked down on?

Would corporations behave differently knowing that their workforce does not need them to survive?

Would we ask corporations to behave differently? 

In the wake of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, one thing has become clear if it was not already: if we keep putting money before people, this will be at a large cost to the many, while a few accrue all the benefits.

Yet in some sort of twisted irony, money, or lack thereof, has come to be associated with one’s individual value.

If you are struggling financially, it is your fault: you are doing something wrong, lazy, failing. Financial success is pitched as an end in and of itself, something we should all aspire to; money is the aim of the game.

And the key to winning is work – paid work that is.

He who does not work, neither shall he eat

This perspective underpins how many governments currently provide assistance, including in Australia: in order to get support, you need to show you deserve it, that you are a lifter, not a leaner.

About to be a parent? Sure, we’ll support you. But only if you pass the work test.

Need access to the disability pension? Please show us you have a permanent medical condition that stops you from working.

Sickness allowance? You must have a job or study to return to.

Newstart Allowance? Participate in approved activities or job search and you’ve got it.

Youth Allowance? Are you looking for work?

Don’t get me wrong, being engaged in work can be incredibly rewarding – economically and emotionally.

However, the view that one’s worth is associated with one’s economic contribution promotes work for the sake of money.

Regardless of whether it is rewarding to the individual. Regardless of its broader social or environmental impact.

Change is only impossible until it’s done

Granted, change would not happen tomorrow, it may not happen for generations. And of course, there is the argument that a UBI is unaffordable, or worse, that it will turn us into a bunch of bludgers. The jury is still out.

So maybe the time has come for a universal basic income scheme, maybe it hasn’t. 

But it is time for us to discuss and trial alternatives to what we have now, as impossible as they might seem.

It is time we reconsider what our social policies are achieving and ask ourselves if this aligns with what we value as a society. And if the answer is no, it is time we ask for more.