Why a Basic Income Won’t Lead to Mass Idleness — And Why Less Work Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing Anyway

Work has historically been seen as having a stabilizing effect on both individual’s life and society as a whole. Too much idleness means lots of important things aren’t getting done; widespread boredom and laziness will settle in, causing people becoming self-indulgent, hedonistic, or even immoral. It is little wonder that most people cannot conceive of any other order to our society or economy — what would a world with less work look like? Won’t giving everyone money only guarantee mass departure from the workforce?

Joel Dodge of Quartz takes to task this common counterargument to the universal basic income (UBI), pointing to research showing no ill effects on work ethic and societal productivity:

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. and Canada were seriously considering the possibility of instating a UBI. During that time, the US government commissioned a series of experiments across six states to study the effects of guaranteed income, particularly its effects on work. The Canadian government introduced a similar experiment in the town of Dauphin.

But it turns out that the effects of a UBI on labor participation weren’t nearly as bad as some had feared. Researchers found that households as a whole reduced their workloads by about 13%, as economist Evelyn Forget explains in a 2011 paper published by Canadian Public Policy. But within each household, the (generally male) primary breadwinners cut back on work hours only slightly. Women who were secondary earners reduced their work hours more, devoting more time to household care and staying home with young children. Teenagers also put off getting part-time jobs to focus on school, leading to a noticeable decline in high school dropout rates in Dauphin, and to double-digit increases in high school completion among participating families in New Jersey, Seattle, and Denver.

While these data come from only a few some studies — UBI has yet to be tested on a large scale, though there are upcoming Dutch and Finnish experiments  — they should still give pause to the reflexive assumption that free money means total abandonment of work. That might certainly be the case for some individuals, but the vast majority of people derive a lot of joy, dignity, and meaning from their work — more so when they enjoy the morale boost and peace of mind that comes with financial stability.

But just as important to keep in mind is the fact that even if a large number of people were to reduce their work hours, or drop off the labor force altogether, that may not necessarily be a bad: humans thrive when they have the time, energy, and comfort to free their hands, minds, and creative energies for other pursuits.

[Even] if some people did stop working, they might wind up contributing to society in other meaningful ways. People who perform the unpaid labor of taking care of children or elderly family members, for example, are certainly doing important work. UBI would simply provide a means of compensating this type of labor efficiently.
And historically, many of mankind’s most groundbreaking achievements have come from people with the luxury of plentiful leisure time. As economist Forget notes in an interview with Freakonomics: “If you look at the 18th and at the 19th century, some of the great scientific breakthroughs and some of the great cultural breakthroughs were made by people who did not work.”

For instance, Charles Darwin acknowledged that he was able to set sail on the HMS Beagle because, coming from a wealthy family, he had “ample leisure from not having to earn my own bread.” Rene Descartes was able to revolutionize Western philosophy and mathematics because, as he put it, he “had no feeling, thank God, that my circumstances obliged me to make science my profession so as to ease my financial condition.”

Countless other luminaries, from Adam Smith to Galileo, were similarly born into privileged lives that permitted them to indulge their scholarly pursuits without the distraction of making ends meet. “These were gentlemen of leisure,” Forget says in the interview. “I don’t think these individuals felt useless; I don’t think their contribution was negligible.” Even for those freed from the need to work for pay, we have a deep human instinct to contribute to society. Many of those who give up work are likely to replace it with something equally meaningful.

Obviously, not everyone will become a brilliant polymath or world-changing inventor; in fact, most people probably won’t do anything as exceptional as Darwin or Galileo. But that’s not the point. Economic security isn’t about promoting raw economic activity, as if humans are just machines whose value is measured by output; it’s about liberating people “from the daily grind, emboldening them to start businesses, take risks, and explore new innovations”. Parents would have more time to raise kids, caregivers could look after their dependents, students could pursue their studies, artists and writers could enrich our lives with more of their creations, and so on.

Over at The Atlantic, Ilana E. Strauss also tackles concerns about the allegedly negative repercussions of a work-free world, albeit directed more at those worried about the impact of mass automation. This is actually a related issue, since one of the key arguments in favor of a guarantee basic income is that mass automation, and the subsequent concentration of wealth among the handful of elites who benefit from it, will leave most of the rest of society with little else to do and survive on.

Despite ample research and anecdotal evidence that unemployment brings misery and social stigma, while work is a source of happiness and comfort, Strauss rightly points out that such problems are a reflection of a society that has never known, much less accepted or understood, a paradigm in which not working is normal and common.

Such visions are based on the downsides of being unemployed in a society built on the concept of employment. In the absence of work, a society designed with other ends in mind could yield strikingly different circumstances for the future of labor and leisure. Today, the virtue of work may be a bit overblown. “Many jobs are boring, degrading, unhealthy, and a squandering of human potential,” says John Danaher, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway who has written about a world without work. “Global surveys find that the vast majority of people are unhappy at work.”

These days, because leisure time is relatively scarce for most workers, people use their free time to counterbalance the intellectual and emotional demands of their jobs. “When I come home from a hard day’s work, I often feel tired,” Danaher says, adding, “In a world in which I don’t have to work, I might feel rather different”—perhaps different enough to throw himself into a hobby or a passion project with the intensity usually reserved for professional matters.

Indeed, it stands to reason that in a society where more leisure is available, and people aren’t worked hard enough to be too tired or busy to cultivate or indulge in non-work related activities, boredom would be less of an issue. So would the social stigma associated with lack of work, which taints the very idea of promoting a guaranteed basic income as something only lazy Utopians would advocate.

Unlike the basic income, there are a relatively large number of case studies of communities and societies where formal work is virtually nonexistent.

Work-free societies are more than just a thought experiment—they’ve existed throughout human history. Consider hunter-gatherers, who have no bosses, paychecks, or eight-hour workdays. Ten thousand years ago, all humans were hunter-gatherers, and some still are. Daniel Everett, an anthropologist at Bentley University, in Massachusetts, studied a group of hunter-gathers in the Amazon called the Pirahã for years. According to Everett, while some might consider hunting and gathering work, hunter-gatherers don’t. “They think of it as fun,” he says. “They don’t have a concept of work the way we do.”

“It’s a pretty laid-back life most of the time,” Everett says. He described a typical day for the Pirahã: A man might get up, spend a few hours canoeing and fishing, have a barbecue, go for a swim, bring fish back to his family, and play until the evening. Such subsistence living is surely not without its own set of worries, but the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argued in a 1968 essay that hunter-gathers belonged to “the original affluent society,” seeing as they only “worked” a few hours a day; Everett estimates that Pirahã adults on average work about 20 hours a week (not to mention without bosses peering over their shoulders). Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employed American with children works about nine hours a day.

Does this leisurely life lead to the depression and purposelessness seen among so many of today’s unemployed? “I’ve never seen anything remotely like depression there, except people who are physically ill,” Everett says. “They have a blast. They play all the time.” While many may consider work a staple of human life, work as it exists today is a relatively new invention in the course of thousands of years of human culture. “We think it’s bad to just sit around with nothing to do,” says Everett. “For the Pirahã, it’s quite a desirable state.

And lest you think these represent too small and isolated a sample size to learn from, keep in mind that such an arrangement was actually typical in most societies up until relatively recently.

According to Gary Cross’s 1990 book A Social History of Leisure Since 1600, free time in the U.S. looked quite different before the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmers—which was a fair way to describe a huge number of Americans at that time—mixed work and play in their daily lives. There were no managers or overseers, so they would switch fluidly between working, taking breaks, joining in neighborhood games, playing pranks, and spending time with family and friends. Not to mention festivals and other gatherings: France, for instance, had 84 holidays a year in 1700, and weather kept them from farming another 80 or so days a year.

This all changed, writes Cross, during the Industrial Revolution, which replaced farms with factories and farmers with employees. Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play. Meanwhile, clocks—which were becoming widespread at that time—began to give life a quicker pace, and religious leaders, who traditionally endorsed most festivities, started associating leisure with sin and tried to replace rowdy festivals with sermons.

As workers started moving into cities, families no longer spent their days together on the farm. Instead, men worked in factories, women stayed home or worked in factories, and children went to school, stayed home, or worked in factories too. During the workday, families became physically separated, which affected the way people entertained themselves: Adults stopped playing “childish” games and sports, and the streets were mostly wiped clean of fun, as middle- and upper-class families found working-class activities like cockfighting and dice games distasteful. Many such diversions were soon outlawed.

With workers’ old outlets for play having disappeared in a haze of factory smoke, many of them turned to new, more urban ones. Bars became a refuge where tired workers drank and watched live shows with singing and dancing. If free time means beer and TV to a lot of Americans, this might be why.

In other words, we take the current socioeconomic arrangement for granted, despite its relative novelty in the grand scheme of human history. Just as the pre-industrial structure of social and economic life was not a given, so to might the status quo change dramatically within the coming decades.

When people ponder the nature of a world without work, they often transpose present-day assumptions about labor and leisure onto a future where they might no longer apply; if automation does end up rendering a good portion of human labor unnecessary, such a society might exist on completely different terms than societies do today.

And as the the Quartz article I cited earlier pointed out, leisure — and with it, all the scientific, creative, and even political activity that emerged — was once the exclusive purview of the upper classes. Only when societies began broadening political and economic power did more and more people — eventually the majority of most developed societies — finally enjoy the opportunity to enjoy hobbies, cultivate interests, and participate in the culture and civic life of their nations. Imagine the benefit of allowing millions of people mired in menial jobs or structural unemployment to enjoy the benefits of more free time without starving or being ostracized.

Needless to say, a society of widespread leisure would look very different from our own, just as modern society would be alien to the 19th and 18th centuries.

School, for one thing, would be very different. “I think our system of schooling would completely fall by the wayside,” says Gray. “The primary purpose of the educational system is to teach people to work. I don’t think anybody would want to put our kids through what we put our kids through now.” Instead, Gray suggests that teachers could build lessons around what students are most curious about. Or, perhaps, formal schooling would disappear altogether.

Trumbach, meanwhile, wonders if schooling would become more about teaching children to be leaders, rather than workers, through subjects like philosophy and rhetoric. He also thinks that people might participate in political and public life more, like aristocrats of yore. “If greater numbers of people were using their leisure to run the country, that would give people a sense of purpose,” says Trumbach.

Social life might look a lot different too. Since the Industrial Revolution, mothers, fathers, and children have spent most of their waking hours apart. In a work-free world, people of different ages might come together again. “We would become much less isolated from each other,” Gray imagines, perhaps a little optimistically. “When a mom is having a baby, everybody in the neighborhood would want to help that mom.” Researchers have found that having close relationships is the number-one predictor of happiness, and the social connections that a work-free world might enable could well displace the aimlessness that so many futurists predict.

In general, without work, Gray thinks people would be more likely to pursue their passions, get involved in the arts, and visit friends. Perhaps leisure would cease to be about unwinding after a period of hard work, and would instead become a more colorful, varied thing. “We wouldn’t have to be as self-oriented as we think we have to be now,” he says. “I believe we would become more human.”

I definitely foresee a change in values as well, namely the recognition that an individual’s intrinsic worth is not determined by the type of job they do or compensation they receive. Then again, such values might be a prerequisite to working towards a universal basic income and the decline in work that might follow. We might also need to change the way we measure and conceive of meaningful work; taking care of one’s dependents, or creating art, or doing volunteer work may not seem as valuable as bringing in “X” amount of profit, but they are still worthy pursuits that would ostensibly increase in number once more people have the time and resources to dedicate to them.

I know that among most readers, these ideas seem too Utopian to even consider. The political and cultural changes that would be necessary to implement a guaranteed basic income would be insurmountable, and in the meantime probably impossible. (The one country that considered such a policy, Switzerland, voted overwhelmingly against the idea in a referendum.)

But if automation continues at its present pace, or if people grow tired of an economy that offers opportunities to only a minority of the mostly well-connected, we might not have a choice but to work towards a UBI and adapt to the subsequent changes it would entail. Given the possible benefits such an economic system would reap, something tells me that it is only a matter of time before cultural attitudes shift, albeit gradually and contentiously, and this sort of system becomes more acceptable.

What are your thoughts?


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