Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby, the authors of Only Humans Need Apply, favor a job guarantee (JG) over a universal basic income (UBI). In a previous post, I critiqued their use of the claim that people who lack jobs tend to be less happy than those who have them (irrespective of income).

In this follow-up post, I take a different tack, and argue that we have reason to support UBI over a JG even if we grant that most people would be happier when employed than when not.

Two points will be key: a UBI does not prevent individuals from working; a UBI, but not a JG, would benefit the minority of individuals who do fare better outside of traditional employment.


1. A Basic Response

In their recently published book Only Humans Need Apply, Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby briefly dismiss a universal basic income (UBI) in favor of a job guarantee (JG).

I laid out their main argument in a previous post on Basic Income News. To recall: Davenport and Kirby’s primary claim is that a JG provides benefits to individuals that exceed those provided by a UBI–specifically, jobs. Central to their argument is the assumption that jobs “bring many benefits to people’s lives beyond the paycheck, among them the social community they provide through having coworkers, the satisfaction of setting and meeting challenging goals, even the predictable structure and rhythm they bring to the week” (p. 7).

In my previous post, I focused on their use of one particular type of data: studies that suggest that unemployed people tend to be less happy than employed people, even after controlling for monetary factors. I will now pursue a slightly different tack. Here I will argue that, even if it is true that jobs improve the happiness of most people, this does not necessarily favor a JG over UBI. (For the purpose of the argument, I will also assume–as do Davenport and Kirby–that sufficient jobs can continue to be created to support full employment, notwithstanding advances in automation.)

These are the crucial observations:

  1. A UBI does not compel individuals who already have jobs to leave them (obviously); thus, it would not hurt those people who already have jobs and value them. Similarly, a UBI does not prevent those without jobs from taking jobs (while also permitting them more time and flexibility to find, or retrain for, a job that is a good fit to their skills and interests).
  1. Even if most individuals are disposed to be happiest when employed in a stable, full-time job, there are some individuals who aren’t. Some individuals are disposed to be happiest–as well as most productive–when not traditionally employed. A UBI, but not JG, would allow those in this minority to flourish.  

Combined, I believe that these two points provide strong reason to prefer UBI over JG. When we consider individuals who are happily employed, the choice appears to be a draw. Perhaps a JG could provide more security in a cherished job, but a UBI would not necessarily hamper it. Meanwhile, a UBI–but not JG–would immensely help those individuals who would better thrive outside of traditional jobs. (There is one important caveat here, which I will return in Part 3 of this article: a JG is likely to provide the greater benefit to some individuals who would prefer to be employed but are out-of-work.)

If the majority of individuals are happiest in jobs, as Davenport and Kirby assume, then a JG presumably would be for the good of the majority. A UBI, however, would be for the good of the majority and then some. A UBI would not cause anyone to be unemployed. However, a large enough UBI would enable individuals to abstain from employment temporarily or permanently–should they choose to do so. A UBI would support the majority and, unlike a JG, also the minority of individuals who are not happiest in jobs (as well as those who are happiest in jobs but need the flexibility to transition into a better job, as I’ll mention briefly in §3).


2. Liberation from Jobs

Most regular readers of Basic Income News have, no doubt, encountered the argument that basic income necessary to liberate individuals from overtaxing jobs, oppressive jobs, or meaningless “bullshit” jobs. Many, perhaps, were drawn to investigate basic income (as I was) precisely because it opens this possibility. Nonetheless, it’s worth rehearsing some points.

It is not hard to demonstrate that some individuals do not gain meaning, happiness, and self-worth from jobs. And, for the purposes of the above argument, this weak claim is all that is necessary (there’s certainly no need to argue that most individuals are so disposed). Some individuals would be much better able to gain meaning, happiness, and self-worth outside of a job–and, in the process, contribute more to society than they otherwise could.

In my last post, for example, I mentioned entrepreneur Robin Chase’s informal studies of individuals’ “passion jobs”. Recall, for example, the couch-surfing, open-source programmer–an individual who is presumably not interested in monetizing his work, who is motivated just to engage in challenging projects and disseminate his work as widely as possible. (For bigger examples on similar lines, we might look to the communities of creators of Linux and Wikipedia.) Even if he could monetize his work as a programmer, this would only take time away from–and perhaps constrict–the socially valuable work that he is currently performing for no financial reward. But, of course, one must have capital (possibly in the form of friends with couches) in order to devote significant amounts of time to open-source programming or other unpaid work. Many would-be creators and innovators lack such capital, and thus remain trapped in jobs that might well be less valuable–to both themselves and society–than the unpaid work they could (and would) otherwise perform.

Brian Eno CC BY 2.0 Garry Knight

Brian Eno CC BY 2.0 Garry Knight

Musician Brian Eno supports basic income for quite similar reasons–that it would enable individuals to avoid jobs in order to engage in more creative work–as evident, for example, in remarks made at meet-up in London last December:

I often get asked to come and talk at art schools, and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to persuade you not to have a job.’ … My first message to people is: try not to get to a job. That doesn’t mean try not to do anything. It means try to leave yourself in a position where you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take maximal advantage of whatever your possibilities are. The obstacle is that most people aren’t in a position to do that. I want to do anything to work to a future where everybody’s in a position to do that. … [T]he concept [of basic income] is the closest thing I’ve heard to achieving the kind of future that I would like to live in.

Similarly, anthropologist David Graeber, known in part for his trenchant look at the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”, supports basic income as a means to unleash the innovative potential of people who might otherwise wasting their talents in unfulfilling jobs.  

David Graeber (left) CC BY 2.0 Guido van Nispen

David Graeber (left) CC BY 2.0 Guido van Nispen

This has all seemed perfectly obvious to me: I’m among those who find traditional jobs confining and stifling, and who has no particular interest in monetizing and advertising the work that I do outside of traditional employment–including, of course, my writing and other work for BIEN and Basic Income News. If only could afford it, I would indeed prefer not to have to seek personal monetary gain from my work. And this preference is not limited to my work for the basic income movement. For instance, one of alternative plans has been to do more work as a “curriculum development consultant” for graduate teaching associates and adjunct faculty in my discipline. This would be interesting, challenging, and rewarding for me–as well as a valuable service for others. But, being familiar with the financial plight of most graduate TAs and adjuncts, I am rather appalled by the thought of charging money for any such services.

Chakay Artisan Roasts

Chakay Artisan Roasts: one product of an unpaid passion job

Prior to my recent personal experiences, my late mother stood out for me as someone who quite clearly found her meaning and purpose outside of paid employment. After spending years feeling stuck low-paying, dead-end service job, she only discovered her “passion job” after she was fired: developing and manufacturing a vegan meat-substitute. Indeed, although the product has begun to be sold in restaurants in the year prior to her death, my mother and her partner didn’t view their invention as a (meatless) cash cow: their vision was that it would eventually provide a low-cost and sustainable way to end worldwide protein malnutrition.

Meanwhile, some people find traditional jobs constricting simply due to the norms and expectations of job culture. A recent blog post on Medium, which focused on neurodiversity, makes this point well:

Most people are unhappy with their jobs, and workplace stress is the biggest cause of workdays lost to ill health. There are many reasons for this, and some of them are directly linked to the reasons so many autistic people struggle to find or hold onto jobs. Noisy environments, interruptions, long work hours and lack of autonomy are stressful for everyone, but often downright intolerable for autistic people. Expectations of conformity hit neurodivergent people especially hard, but they can be stifling or even ruinous for people from other cultures, too, not to mention anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender roles assigned them by society. [Embedded links in original]

Neurodivergent individuals, and others who do not fit neatly in the mold of society, can be stifled and inhibited by traditional work environments. Such individuals are better able to flourish personally–and, in turn, become more valuable contributors to society–if they are able to working outside of traditional jobs, or perhaps take the time to a job that is a better match.

Examples like the above easily could be multiplied, but these will suffice to make the point.

Now, then, what do Davenport and Kirby have to say about such individuals? The answer is not much. They do mention explicitly that proponents of UBI often claim that “the impulse to create value is innate in humans, and if anything is channeled into less socially valuable activities when the point must be to gain payment for one’s work” (p. 242). However, their only reply is quite hastily and uncritically dismissive:

Unfortunately, the data don’t bear that out. As Derek Thompson notes in his provocative Atlantic article “A World Without Work,” time studies suggest that people who don’t work tend to sleep more, watch more TV, and browse the Internet. So much for taking up painting.

There’s no need to say much more in reply to this hasty assertion. Certainly, it is not difficult to compile anecdotes of specific individuals who would (or do) thrive outside of paid work. And, for the purpose of the present argument, there is no need to demonstrate that all or even most individuals would engage in socially valuable activities outside of paid work. Plausibly, even with a UBI, most individuals would choose to remain in paid employment. To make the case for the advantage of a UBI to a JG, we need only to show that some individuals (and, in turn, society) would benefit tremendously if liberated from the need for work for money–as we’ve done.

It is worth pointing out, though, that the Thompson’s Atlantic article goes much farther than Davenport and Kirby’s comments would suggest–and it goes much farther, specifically, in exploring and describing a multitude of creative recreational activities performed by individuals outside of paid work. Indeed, Thompson states that one of his objectives in the article is to envision “how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages”. He accepts that it’s possible for people to “meaningful work without wages”. Moreover, he investigates what such meaningful work might be–visiting locations such as the Columbus Idea Foundry, a large “makerspace” (right next door to my own neighborhood, as it happens).

CC BY-NC 2.0 Stephen Wolfe

CC BY-NC 2.0 Stephen Wolfe

It’s worth reading more of Thompson’s own words:

The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose.

After touring the [Columbus Idea Foundry], I sat at a long table with several members. … I asked them what they thought of their organization as a model for a future where automation reached further into the formal economy. A mixed-media artist named Kate Morgan said that most people she knew at the foundry would quit their jobs and use the foundry to start their own business if they could. Others spoke about the fundamental need to witness the outcome of one’s work, which was satisfied more deeply by craftsmanship than by other jobs they’d held.

Late in the conversation, we were joined by Terry Griner, an engineer who had built miniature steam engines in his garage before Bandar invited him to join the foundry. …  “I’ve been working since I was 16. I’ve done food service, restaurant work, hospital work, and computer programming. I’ve done a lot of different jobs,” said Griner. … “But if we had a society that said, ‘We’ll cover your essentials, you can work in the shop,’ I think that would be utopia. That, to me, would be the best of all possible worlds.”

To echo Davenport and Kirby: So much for just sleeping, watching TV, and surfing the web.


3. UBI for Workers

I believe that the proponent of UBI can hardly underemphasize the need to liberate individuals from stifling, unengaging, and unnecessary jobs. At the same time, however, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the choice between JG and UBI is not a choice between “jobs and fewer jobs”. A UBI per se does not entail that individuals will stop working: it merely enables this possibility. A UBI does not harm those who are already happy in their jobs. Indeed, far from discouraging paid employment, UBI carries the advantage of avoiding the “welfare trap”: individuals do not lose the benefit when they assume a job or wage increase. (Indeed, this is a major reason that countries like Finland are seriously exploring the implementation of UBI.)

And we could add that there might be advantages of a UBI over a JG even when limiting our attention to those who do prefer to work in traditional jobs. A UBI would benefit anyone who feels trapped in a job that is a poor match for their personality, interests, and capabilities–even those would prefer to remain in full-time employment (but simply not in their current ill-fit jobs). With a guaranteed unconditional income, one could take away from full-time employment in order to retrain, further their education, start a private business, or pursue other such opportunities. A basic income provides a financial floor to enable individuals to switch jobs and careers–and even to execute the retraining that Davenport and Kirby recommend to cope with the age of automation!

A job guarantee provides jobs. A basic income, however, provides individuals with the financial security necessary to temporarily abstain from employment while retraining or searching for a job that is a good match to their interests and capabilities. 


4. A Critical Caveat

There is, though, one caveat–which I’ll take up in my third and final installment. We must concede that there is something that UBI doesn’t guarantee that JG does: jobs.

Under a UBI, without a JG, there is no guarantee that sufficient jobs will even exist for all individuals–and even if there are sufficient jobs, a UBI alone does not enable individuals to access those jobs. A UBI does not provide social networks, cultural or linguistic capital, resumé-writing or interviewing skills, or self-marketing abilities. A UBI does not overturn implicit biases in hiring. A UBI does not guarantee that jobs are located where job-seekers live, or that job-seekers have the training and credentials needed to obtain a job. And so on.

A UBI program is likely to treat individuals as self-reliant–left to their own devices to find a job (or not)–in contrast to a JG program, which would bring along services to ensure that individuals are provided with jobs. Quite likely, one fear of Davenport and Kirby is that a UBI, but not JG, would result in many individuals who desire jobs but have difficulty in finding or obtaining them. While UBI might not prohibit individuals from taking up employment, it also does nothing to guarantee jobs to those who want them.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 New York City Department of Transportation

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 New York City Department of Transportation

Perhaps, then, there is one category of individuals who stands to benefit more from a JG than from a UBI: those who are not employed, and who are looking for entry into a traditional job.

My hope, as broached in my last feature, is that UBI would usher in the attenuation of the job-culture. But it would not be immediate. At present, many (perhaps most) people have internalized the job-ethic. At present, unemployment does bear a stigma. And many people lack the training, motivation, or desire to start a small business or become independent artists, craftspersons, researchers, or software developers. Plausibly, there are many unemployed individuals who just want a job to provide their lives with purpose, dignity, structure, and a sense of social contribution. And we must not simply assume, without evidence, that such individuals would not be satisfied with the sort of “make-work” position created by a JG (which, after all, could be a truly important one, such as repairing our failing infrastructure).

It’s important that UBI advocates do not overlook this category of individuals: those who would prefer guaranteed employment (even in a government-created job) to guaranteed income.

But how many such individuals actually exist? And how would they fare under under a UBI? Is the solution a UBI plus a JG or other policy? Are other compromise positions available?

These are important concerns, which I plan to address in future work.


Davenport and Kirby: Full Bibliographical Entries

Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby (2016) Only Humans Need Apply: Winners & Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, HarperCollins Publishers.

Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby (May 26, 2016) “What Governments Can Do When Robots Take Our Jobs“, Fortune Magazine (and reprinted in Yahoo Finance).

Reviewed by Tyler Prochazka

Featured Image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 San Francisco Public Library

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About Kate McFarland

Kate McFarland has written 512 articles.

Former lead writer and editor of Basic Income News.