A universal basic income: a solution to a precarious future?

By Lewis Bloodworth, Second Year Undergraduate, Politics and International Relations

Today, the United Kingdom will decide the fate of its membership to the European Union, and much of the political establishment or news media has been almost completely focused on that big issue. It is easy at times like this to lose sight of other important political developments such as the recent announcement by the shadow chancellor John McDonnell that he and his team would be taking a “closer” look at proposals for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Such a policy measure is intended to offset increasing shifts to automation and precarious work. As a young university student soon to enter the job market this certainly is an issue of great interest to me.

A quick glance on the internet will yield numerous headlines about automation. Two examples that came of particular surprise to me include the electronics company Foxconn replacing 60,000 workers with robots, and the clothing brand Adidas having recently opened a fully automated factory in Bavaria. These examples represent a challenge to our conceptions of work, but also in my view coincide with a wider form of job insecurity that a great many people experience, especially the younger generations such as mine.

A UBI, simply put, is a government grant that is given to all individuals without means testing. Unlike the traditional welfare state, UBI is universal and without qualification. Everyone young and old, in work or unemployed would receive the grant, other countries within and around Europe have even begun to flirt with the idea. Finland, the Netherlands and small projects such as GiveDirectly operating in Kenya are key examples where policy makers are really beginning to get to grips with the idea of a UBI. A recent survey carried out by the Dalia Research Company found that 64% of European citizens were supportive of the policy. This research also comes within the wake of the recent Swiss referendum surrounding UBI which unfortunately resulted in an overall no vote. Despite that result however it is clear the UBI is definitely gaining traction amongst policy makers and increasingly reaching into public debate.

In my view, implementing a UBI could have various revolutionary effects.

  1. It could lower the precariousness of workers in insecure work, reducing stress and potentially improving the physical and mental wellbeing of citizens at the lower end of the income scale.
  2. Gendered issues surrounding employment and home life could be vastly improved by ensuring that everyone has a degree of financial independence. A UBI could also potentially enable women who are in abusive relationships greater freedom and autonomy by ensuring that they have their own source of income independent of their spouse. The UBI through its universal outlook can therefore compliment a feminist politics.
  3. A recent report by the world economic forum entitled the “future of work” undertook an extensive study of current patterns of employment, recognising the potential negative effects of automation. It found that two areas in particular are likely to be heavily affected by advances in technology, these being areas of manufacturing and office or administrative sectors. With trends like these, alternative sources of income will be necessary to protect against job loss and provide a greater degree of security for workers, a UBI suits that role.
  4. The policy itself could also supplement and improve upon the existing welfare state by reducing the amount of paperwork and constant updating of circumstances the present system involves, this line of argument actually coming from the American right who are normally sceptical of redistributive mechanisms.

Precarious work and shifting labour markets will of course affect everyone. However, the phenomenon of the “Graduate without a future” presents itself as a real worry for young people leaving university. Burdensome debt, few employment opportunities and rising rents leaves young people whether they are graduates or not in a greater state of insecurity than those who went before them.

A UBI paired with other progressive policies could buck the current trend of pervasive precarity, which ultimately would help alleviate the debilitating pressures many young people face. This is especially vital considering that issues of mental health amongst young people is becoming increasingly common.

Having a UBI would leave me feeling more secure, less worried about the future and would enable me to fully realise my own independent and creative desires as a student. Young people today are right to be worried about the future, and it is up for us as politically minded citizens to try and ensure that the future works for us. Both young and old could benefit from a UBI as it provides an alternative economic solution to pressing problems. In light of today’s referendum, ensuring we have viable policies to tackle contemporary issues is important, and whatever the result may be let us not be disheartened from striving for a better society for all, a UBI is one step towards that end.

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