The idea of a universal basic income for all citizens, regardless of employment status, is an attractive one. Few would disagree with the idea of creating a safety net to ensure that someone who is down on their luck or unemployed could afford food, shelter and clothing at a minimum.
However, extending universal basic income to the entire working population of a large country could be less feasible than introducing it in certain cities or for select populations. For example, there are presently around 32 million employed adults in the UK plus almost another nine million economically inactive individuals aged 16-64. If each of these roughly 40 million people received, say, £500 each month, this would equate to almost £20 billion a month or £240 billion a year – approximately double the annual NHS budget. It’s difficult to imagine this occurring at a time when governments across Europe are taking every opportunity to implement austerity.
Billionaire Elon Musk, a proponent of universal basic income, feels that in the face of increased automation “People will have time to do other things, more complex things, more interesting things… Certainly more leisure time.” Some individuals who find their jobs taken over by robots might seize the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends or relish the chance to pursue a favorite hobby or study a topic of interest, whilst receiving a modest allowance.
However, some people might find themselves struggling to cope with the lack of a daily routine alongside social isolation and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, all of which are to some degree tempered by having a job, especially one involving physical labor.
The socioeconomic paradigm shift resulting from the combination of automation and a universal basic income would be unprecedented as relationships between workers, bosses, society and the government would be drastically affected. It might even be more profitable for owners of large industries to pay their workers a subsistence wage to stay at home, whilst outsourcing their jobs to robots and computers who don’t require breaks, sick pay or pensions, won’t go on strike on account of poor working conditions or inadequate health and safety standards, and won’t raise thorny issues such as asking for a share of company profits in exchange for labor performed or suggesting factories be run as workers’ cooperatives.
Maintaining a high profit margin without having to deal with trade unions, strikes or irate workers: a capitalist’s dream. Meanwhile, the workers can stay at home, isolated from each other, as they enjoy the latest soap opera and read juicy tabloid gossip. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: society, work and our daily lives are set to see radical change over the coming decades.