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July 20, 2017

Future of Work: Universal Basic Income

Following from a previous post about the rise of automation, this post discusses a societal implication of a low-job economy: providing a universal basic income (UBI).

The ultimate question it is answering is that if robots replace humans in the workplace, then how will people earn a living?

Proponents of UBI say it’s simple: just give everyone a fixed sum of money every month for them to live off. Let’s look into this some more.


The concept of the state providing a guaranteed level of income to all of its citizens is not new.

Philosophers throughout the ages have spoken of policies to ensure everybody has their basic needs met through the direct transfer of cash, and through the 1960s and 70s, politicians on both sides of the US spectrum advocated such schemes, but were not able to have them passed.

Over the past few years, this notion has come back into the fray largely as a result of the job replacing functions of many new technologies that are being developed.

How might it work?

Unlike a lot of policies, the principle behind UBI is incredibly simple: the state gives people a fixed amount of money every month, no strings attached.

In recent years this has moved from academic hypothifications into actual real-life policies being implemented.

Finland is one flagship study from Europe, with others in the Netherlands, Germany and Glasgow.

In each, the concept is the same: find a subset of the population, give them a fixed income each month and compare their behaviours with the hypothetical outcomes people speculate.

Who is it for?

The end game for the most ardent supporters is that this income would be given to everyone in society (i.e. it’d be universal).

For now though, the tests that are being done with those who would see the greatest change in their livelihoods, namely those in a current state of unemployment.

Humanitarian efforts

On the extreme end of unemployment are the people living in societies without access to basic resource, such as food, water and shelter.

For years, charities have been in the process of dispensing aid in the forms of such resource, by providing individuals and communities with cows, jerrycans and tin roofs.

This, however, has led to disdain from many who point to the millions in “wasted aid” of poorly implemented programs essentially providing things which people at the bottom of the pyramid don’t actually want.

A recent interesting example of this is Bill Gates proposing to give away free chickens in Bolivia, and being rejected.

One resolution out of the conundrum of “how can we lift people out of poverty?” is to simply give them direct cash payments and allow them to decide for themselves.

But won’t this distort incentives? Or won’t people simply spend it all on drinking?

Well, says organisations like GiveDirectly, we should at least give it a try. They are running a twelve year program in Western Kenya, which hopes to contribute towards an answer.

Rise of the robots

It might seem that rural Latin America, or mud huts of Eastern Africa are a far cry from the developed world of office blocks and Uber, however it might not be so forever.

The logic of the previous post is that as automative technology increases, the percentage of the population who are no longer in employment drastically increases, leaving hoards of well-educated people without a source of income.

Mass unemployment is rarely a good thing for a society, and so getting to a position where nobody is in peril of failing to meet their most basic needs takes the pressure off hard struck families to seek alternative means (most likely crime-related), and allows them to undertake other pursuits.

The end of jobs?

Many question whether giving away money for free to everyone will cause the population to regress into laziness, spelling if not the end of our existence, then a severe destablising of it.

In this specific instance, the underlying basis is that the only reason people go to work is to earn an income, whereas there are usually many others, including fulfillment, a sense of purpose and the ability to exercise creativity.

There are, however, a host of other pushbacks against the idea of the guaranteed income. UBI commentator Scott Santens gives a critique to each of these, essential reading for anyone wanting to learn more on the subject.


Whilst the notion of “X is threatening our jobs” is age old, we’re now living in a period where technology is accelerating faster than ever.

These advancements are in the domain of replacing the functions of previously stable vocations, often completed by those with a “good education”.

Whilst a lot discussion is spent on the negatives of whether people can be trusted with unconditional cash, proponents of UBI point to the liberating aspect of allowing humans to pursue their true passions, breaking out the constraints of needing a job in order to survive.

Regardless of how things play out, and what pace technological automations overtake human jobs, as a business owner interested in the world, the Universal Basic Income is likely to be a concept you’ll continue to hear more of in the coming years.


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