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Time to do what we really, really want

As devolved nations take solid steps towards UBI, ‘work-life balance’ could be a welcome casualty of Covid-19

By Jake Roslin

Courtesy of Tezos via Unsplash

An easily-missed but hugely significant news story slipped through social media feeds in the middle of February, that of the first payments of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the UK. Not a committee, not an influential paper, but actual cash, £1,600 per month, to be paid to 500 or so young people in Wales for a two-year period, conditional on nothing more than being alive.

The trial, announced by the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, will involve all 18 year olds who leave care homes. Any money they earn they also keep in full. Acknowledgement, if one were needed, that technological bounds in robotics and AI mean the world of full employment will never return, and that the economy, turned on its head by Covid-19, is oiled more by the speed of currency running through it, than once-ubiquitous hard and often unfulfilling work ethics. And that people, and especially the vulnerable, should not be forced to jump through uncomfortable hoops to meet an outdated concept of what constitutes being a worthwhile member of society.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament has convened the Minimum Income Guarantee Steering Group, MIG, being UBI by another name, comprising a selection of MSPs, including Aberdeen University’s until recently Rector, Maggie Chapman. This follows a report commissioned by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2020 involving the influential anti-poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation that recommended a no-strings-attached £11,000 per annum for those of working age. Also involved with part of the study were politicians from Scotland’s local authority areas. Fife Councils, Paul Vaughan said: ‘Given the stubborn persistence of unacceptable levels of poverty and inequality in our society, it’s important that we consider innovative solutions. We are clear that a pilot of basic income is desirable, and we have described how and what would need to be done for this to happen.’

As Scotland begins to emerge from the pandemic, the MIG group now convene regularly to shape ‘what a MIG for Scotland should look like’: indeed creating UBI in some form was made a May 2021 election commitment by the ruling Scottish National Party.

A more novel approach is being taken in Ireland. A newly announced plan by Culture Minister Catherine Martin considers options at an unconditional basic income for Ireland’s artists. Prompted by the economic hardships particularly suffered within the creative arts during the pandemic, this ‘once-in-a-generation policy intervention,’ as Martin describes it, is expected to begin later this year and involves a weekly payment equivalent to €10.50 an hour (about £8.75) to those in selected arts sectors. ‘The minister is conscious of the value that this sector brings to all Irish citizens,’ Martin’s office said. ‘It contributes to individual and societal well-being’.

This common good is being emphasised by those advocates of UBI with motives more altruistic than merely keeping disposal incomes changing hands fast enough to perpetuate capitalist society though, as can be seen by the impressively wide political membership of the Scottish Government MIG steerers. UBI is one of those strange political phenomena that has benefits to those on the right as much as the left, if only the ‘money for nothing’ perceptions more common in those of a Conservative bent can be looked at from a different angle. The peculiar idea that we are only valued members of society if we work at something which happens to intrinsically make someone (whether or not the worker themselves) a lot of money makes very little sense when one thinks about it. Graduate career decisions are all too often made on some sort of guilt-trip as to what sort of job is ‘worthy’ of a graduate, will repay a student loan, or will not disappoint parents, still tied to 20th century economic logic. If our true vocation is economically unworthy: the teaching and caring ones come to mind as much as the arts; not to mention bringing up children, working for charities, academic research, producing student newspapers, expert podcasts, self-published comics, poetry nights, wildlife conservation... all of these things have value to others, and if they are our vocation, we do society a disservice by becoming accountants or data analysts instead. The idea that we should only do what we are good at in our ‘spare time’ is peculiar, yet heavily ingrained in our DNA.

UBI is not the only way nations are seeking to update their economies to match a post-industrial, post-pandemic world. Belgium has recently announced the right to both a four day week (Wales is considering this too) and to ignore, without fear of reprisal, employment-related contact outside of work hours. Yet even this is still steeped in the increasingly outdated concept of work-life balance. The idea that we should spend five (or four) days doing something we don’t like very much for freedom for the rest of the week is very pre-Covid. Just as the difference between the feel of weekdays and weekends has become ever more difficult to discern for many of us; whether freelancers, working the gig economy, or just going to the Duncan Rice on a Sunday…so has the merging of our work persona and life persona.

Should we really only be true to ourselves for a minority of our days on this planet? As the cliché goes, no one on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time in the office.

And, as the devolved nations, including our own, have twigged, the time is now. Two and a half years ago I wrote about the then still, rather fringe concept of UBI in these very pages. Since then we have experienced exactly the kind of natural disaster that exposes how fragile the foundations of neoliberalist economics are. We can simply no longer take for granted that the majority of us will even have the option of the kind of graduate employment patterns that were the norm during the 20th century, even if we did still want them. Having a fixed base, state-paid income for, first, test groups and eventually an entire population, is not a ‘handout’ but a very clever bit of economics which will churn, not drain, the financial health of a nation. That is, if it is considered carefully and set at just the right amount. What is happening in Wales and Ireland today, and perhaps Scotland tomorrow, might just be the real post-pandemic ‘new normal’, and might just make us a more altruistic, more cultural, and (in more ways than one) more rich society.


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