Universal Basic Income: how to create a renewed sense of purpose

In his recent Harvard Commencement speech, Marc Zuckerberg talked about the importance of giving people purpose: “We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge: to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.” One point many picked up on was his mention of Universal Basic Income (UBI). The concept is starting to gain ground with innovators and business leaders like Zuckerburg and Richard Branson; and so could it be the gamechanger for the future of work?

UBI is a regular cash payment to individuals, without being subject to means testing or requiring any form of work to qualify. It’s something that we’ve touched on in previous articles, as momentum grows around the concept. Various organizations in both the public and private sector have realized that welfare programs in their current form will struggle to cope with the potential levels of unemployment that automation is likely to result in. Several pilot projects have sprung up across Europe, which all explore how UBI could be deployed in a sustainable, beneficial manner.

While many of the pilots are still in their early stages, we are starting to see initial results being shared, with some interesting findings.

Less stress, more work, more time?

One of the more high-profile trials is taking place in Finland. From January 2017, 2000 unemployed adults have been given €560 every two months for two years. There’s no means-testing, no sanctions if the subjects become employed or generate an income from freelance working during the trial. While the trial organizers won’t contact participants until 2019, some early anecdotal evidence has suggested that subjects are less stressed, have greater incentive to work and more time to pursue business ideas.

This goes against much criticism of UBI, which often suggests that introducing it would have a negative impact on employment rates. Full results won’t be available from Finland for some time, so it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions at this stage, but it’s interesting that the early results seemed to confirm what the likes of Zuckerburg and Branson believe – that whatever happens, people need a sense of purpose, and UBI could be one way in delivering that as traditional approaches to work evolve.

A universal way to better work/life balance

Sense of purpose is important to many of us. A study by PwC found that 83% of employees ranked finding meaning in their day-to-day work in their top three when it comes to choosing what was important in their role. In the same study, 79% of business leaders said that purpose is central to business success.

It could be argued that if a UBI removes the economic drive to work, not only would we be faced with mass unemployment, but there could be long term ramifications for mental health – work has long been proven to give people structure and purpose, both critical to their mental wellbeing. On the flip side, proponents of UBI make the case that it will, as the Finnish pilot suggests, give people time to try new things, leading to other sources of fulfilment, on their own terms.

Why does this matter? Society is going through significant change, which has a direct impact on the way we work. We’re living longer at a time when government support is being cut back, which means parents are now being cared for by children who in turn are also trying to raise their own offspring. Doing that in a rigid 9 to 5 structure over a five-day working week is becoming increasingly impractical. As digital ways of working become more common place, the idea of one office, one desk for all work seems archaic. This isn’t about people working longer hours, but about employers understanding that it is an employee’s productivity, rather than their presence, which should be the true market of their value. If that means working four slightly longer days, or six shorter ones, then employment contracts should reflect that. Where UBI comes in is how it can help facilitate this evolving approach to employment.

Shifting from anecdotal evidence to hard data

Of course, anecdotal evidence from a relatively small sample is not going usher in UBIs across Europe. More data will be needed, as well as more pilots in different countries with different cultures. Currently, in Europe, trials took place or are starting in the Netherlands in Utrecht and Besos, a district of Barcelona. There are also programs taking place in Africa, the USA and India, as well as plans, with dates to be confirmed, for schemes in Scotland and Canada. With each of these being delivered by different bodies, covering private, public and third sector organizations, there will be varied focuses and outcomes. What we will see, however, is increasing amounts of data over the coming years, which will start to demonstrate how larger schemes could be deployed.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that we’re rapidly reaching an inflection point – welfare is increasingly unaffordable, unsustainable and unable to cope with the potential increase in unemployment that the automated era could usher in. There needs to be a solution to ensure that all can benefit, one that supports people to achieve a meaningful work/life balance.

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About Marianne Hewlett
Senior Vice President and member of the Scientific Community
Marianne Hewlett is a Senior Vice President at Atos and a seasoned marketeer and communications expert. Passionate about connecting people, technology and business, she is a member of the Atos Scientific Community where she explores the Future of Work and the impact of technology on individuals, organizations and society. She is a strong ambassador for diversity and inclusivity – and particularly encourages female talent to pursue a career in IT – as she believes a diverse and happy workforce is a key driver for business success. As an ambassador for the company’s global transformation program Wellbeing@work, she explores new technologies and ways of working that address the needs of current and future generations of employees. A storyteller at heart, she writes about the human side of business and technology and posts include insights into the future of work, the science of happiness, and how wellbeing and diversity can drive success.

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