On work, Universal Basic Income, robots, and the meaning of life.

Text: Maria Luostarinen

Illustration: Netta Pasuri


Universal Basic Income. A string of words that have captured a fair share of attention over the years. Indeed, it’s a well-established view that UBI has its pool of strong advocates and, on the flip side, those that are strictly against it. But let’s, for a moment, examine what UBI is to be precise.


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As the name suggests, UBI is for everyone, regardless of income, employment status or any other factor; it is universal. A fuller definition for basic income includes the following: “basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement“ (Basic Income Earth Network, 2019). However, this definition is not completely agreed upon, as questions regarding the eligibility, its amount, mode, frequency of distribution, as well as conditionality remain open for debate and, indeed, tend to vary from experiment to experiment. Despite this, one of the defining features of basic income is its universality. But this feature is also problematic. Would people stop working if they didn’t have to do so to put bread on the table?

To consider the question above, we might ask Andrew Yang (Democratic candidate for US Presidency, entrepreneur and author) who has pondered answers to this. In general, Yang suggests a monthly UBI of 1000 USD called the Freedom Dividend. This would tip all Americans slightly above the poverty line of 11,770 USD of annual income. In support of UBI, Yang writes in his book The War on Normal People – the truth about America’s disappearing jobs and why Universal Basic Income is our future (2018: 186) that “Even with the Freedom Dividend attending to people’s ability to feed themselves, the thing that still freaks everyone out about replacing jobs is this: What will people do all day? Work has been proven to be a vital part of a healthy life and society. Long-term unemployment is one of the most destructive things that can happen to a person. Getting a bit of money doesn’t necessarily change that”. So, perhaps a life void of work would not bode well with most humans who have an inherent need to seek meaning and purpose to their lives.


Long-term unemployment is one of the most destructive things that can happen to a person.


To continue on the same theme, not only is it worrisome that UBI may cause people to work less, but it is worrisome what will happen to the future of work; UBI may need to be implemented regardless, as robots replace us in our jobs. To quote a tweet from Elon Musk (co-founder and CEO of Tesla): “Gas cars are so last-century!”. Indeed, not only are electric cars becoming increasingly popular, but self-driving cars seem to be slowly but steadily replacing human drivers. Although amazingly convenient (and probably safer!), they are a step towards taking the jobs of millions of people who drive for a living. And this is just one example of a job that can and will be automatized in the future. Its logical to suggest that as a result of this we would simply come up with new jobs. And sure, this would happen, but it wouldn’t necessarily happen fast enough to seize the displacement of many people who wouldn’t be able to find a job in the meantime either due to lack of education or where they happen to live.


Overall, inconsistencies in basic income experiments make it difficult to judge whether implementing it as a policy more widely makes sense. We also cannot predict what work will look like in the future. However, it appears farfetched to suggest that people would stop working because of UBI, but rather, it’s more likely that they might have to because of robots. And then we must find solutions for those who still wish to contribute after being displaced from their jobs.


For now, it seems appropriate to leave you – the reader – with the following quote from French critic and poet Paul Valery: “The trouble with our times is that the future isn’t what it used to be”.


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