UBI’s Impact on Work Culture: Not a Question for the Experimenters
My interest in basic income stemmed from the conjecture that such a policy could help to ignite a progression away from the culture of total work. However, there are many open empirical questions regarding the exact way in which a basic income would (or would not) influence work-related attitudes and behaviors.
One might hope that current and planned experiments will shed some light on this topic. My claim in this article is that this is not likely to be the case: the impact of basic income on work-related attitudes and behaviors is not readily amenable to experimentation.
1. Fixing the Viewpoint: Opposition to the Culture of Work
When I began casually following the basic income movement in 2015, and when I began volunteering for Basic Income News in November of that year, I was tentatively attracted to the policy as a means to subsidize lifestyles like downshifting and what I’d come to call anti-careerism – the rejection of idea that one’s life course should be structured and defined by a career path.
At that time, I was unaware of the movement’s budding interest in experimentation. I did not realize that the center-right federal government of Finland was about to declare its intention to fund an experimental trial of basic income, or that the provincial government of Ontario was also preparing to design and implement a trial of guaranteed minimum income.
I did not foresee the global surge of interest in experiments and pilot studies that would happen soon after the commencement of my volunteership. But happen it did, and thus, as a writer for Basic Income News, I was committed to expend considerable effort covering the current basic income implementation trials. Moreover, as a “just the facts” news reporter, it was my duty to report on them without allowing my own personal misgivings to show through (although I did have occasion to leak my skepticism in the Op-Ed section). As a result, I was often mistaken for someone with a genuine and favorable interest in basic income experiments.
Through it all, my main interest in basic income remained the conjecture that the policy might act as a subsidy for downshifting, anti-careerism, and working without pay, and thereby help to displace society’s overvaluing of selling labor for money. While such an “anti-work” approach to basic income is highly controversial, I will assume this perspective throughout the present article. (Those who do not share it may either accept it for the sake of argument or stop reading.)
Such an approach to basic income rests on untested empirical conjectures. In fact, however, many questions remain open. Would individuals living in a society with basic income come to hold different views about the role and importance of jobs? Would they fail to view an occupation or career as integral to self-identity? Would they deny that a high salary or professional advancement is essential for personal success? Would they ascribe greater value to self-development and social contributions that occur outside of paid work? Would they tend to prioritize activities that are rewarding in themselves over activities that contribute to professionalization and employability? To what extent would basic income actually enable people to lead lives without full-time or continuous jobs? It is sufficient to empower individuals to work fewer hours? (Probably not.) Would it permit some to withdraw from the labor market completely?
Some proponents take for granted that basic income would usher in a society in which the pursuit of passions is more important than paid work. Such optimistic predictions, however, must be moderated against the reality that the culture of work is deeply entrenched. When critics contend that it’s premature to “give up” on the goal of full employment, the normative assumptions behind their rhetoric should not be ignored: secure full-time jobs and careers remain central to the identity and self-worth of many who have them, and central to the goals and aspirations of many who don’t. Even more unsettlingly (in my view), many supporters enthusiastically maintain that basic income would not result in lower rates of employment–and might even increase work effort (as is the hypothesis behind Finland’s experiment, which is designed primarily to assess whether unemployed individuals would be more likely to accept work if their benefits were made unconditional). Some argue that it would act as a stimulus to business and grow the economy, never pausing to question the ethos of paid work and productivity.
We simply don’t know the long-term effects of basic income on work-related attitudes and behaviors. Given the myriad of unanswered empirical questions, one might guess that I would have been heartened to witness the unexpected onslaught of experiments that occurred during my volunteership with Basic Income News. But I was not: unfortunately, it is unlikely that the present wave of experiments will yield insight into the empirical concerns that interest me and others who approach basic income from the “anti-work” perspective.
2. Five Limitations of Experiments
I believe it’s possible that basic income could precipitate a mass transformation of work-related behavior and attitudes but, if so, it most likely occur through long-term, society-wide processes. Experiments, in contrast, are necessarily (1) limited in duration and (2) restricted to a subset of the population (rather than “universal”).
And experiments have other shortcomings. For instance, they must be (3) designed to prevent subjects from being financially worse off as a result of participation, whereas any “real-world” UBI would almost certainly be introduced in tandem with a funding mechanism that causes some individuals to be net payees. Finally, as existing experiments have been designed, the target populations (4) consist of low-income individuals, the unemployed, and/or welfare recipients, and (5) consist mainly of adults who have already been acculturated into the present society and its ethos of work and consumption.
2.1 Experiments are limited in duration.
Most of the current BI-related experiments are two or three years in length. In the United States, the non-profit YC Research plans to launch an experiment in which some participants receive cash transfers for five years. The only projects of longer duration are taking place in developing nations: GiveDirectly is providing a 12-year basic income to 40 villages in its major experiment in Kenya, and the Brazilian non-profit organization ReCivitas has introduced a “lifetime basic income” in the village Quatinga Velho (note that the latter is not an “experiment” in the scientific sense). Even if longer term experiments were affordable, the pressure to obtain results would generally militate against them.
The short-term nature of experiments poses at least two major shortcomings vis-à-vis our present interests:
First, the payments’ limited duration disincentivizes financially risky behavior, such as abandoning a job or career. We should expect that few individuals would choose to make radical changes to their work and life if they are guaranteed unconditional cash payments for only two or three years. A two- or three-year gap in employment might jeopardize not only one’s ability to return to one’s former job or career path but also one’s general future prospects in the labor market.
Secondly, let’s assume that some participants do radically alter their workforce participation despite the short-term nature of the experiment (e.g. they might use the money to help provide financial security during the process of downshifting from a lucrative full-time job, with the confidence that the experiment’s timeframe is long enough to permit them to settle into stable part-time employment or freelance work). Under a society-wide and permanent basic income, such “first movers” might inspire others also to seek alternatives to the norm of full-time permanent employment, initiating a sort of ripple effect whereby downshifting and other such alternative lifestyles gain in practice and acceptance. A two- or three-year experiment, however, is unlikely to be long enough to observe these more slowly accruing effects on social attitudes toward work.
Stated otherwise: a basic income might enable some individuals to voluntarily accept less money pay through work, reduce their time in the labor market, or even cease employment entirely (especially in the many non-USA nations in which benefits such as healthcare are not dependent on full-time employment). It might, for example, liberate those who had already been keen to adopt such a lifestyle (say, downshifting) but were restrained by, and only by, the lack of a stable financial safety net. Meanwhile, however, other would-be downshifters might remain hesitant. The latter group might include, for instance, those who have been held back by not only financial anxiety but also fear of social marginalization. Over time, however, an increased prevalence and visibility of downshifting could increase the lifestyle’s social acceptability, thereby reducing its stigmatization and rendering more attractive to more people (which would further increase its visibility and social acceptance, and so on).
Of course, this is purely speculative. Even if a basic income were to bring about increase in the number and visibility of downshifters (which itself is uncertain), this might lead not to social acceptance but to angry complaints about “parasitism” and further stigmatization. But the point is just that experiments are unlikely to reveal which outcome would transpire.
Indeed, moreover, some of the effects basic income on social attitudes toward work might develop over generations. Perhaps children and teens would develop less material-driven aspirations if they were to grow up in a society in which basic material security is taken for granted; perhaps they would place less weight on monetary considerations when choosing work or other projects and pursuits. Perhaps they would not internalize the moral imperative that one must “earn a living” through paid labor. Perhaps it would merely seem intuitive to them to conceptualize work and income as independent. Perhaps, in turn, they would conceive of the value of work in terms other than income, such as the good it brings to the world and the satisfaction it provides to the worker. Views that are counternormative in our own society might come naturally to those raised in world with universal basic income…
But we certainly can’t be confident about any of that, and experiments will not help.
2.2 Experiments are not “universal” in scope.
As I have written elsewhere, a bigger question than “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” is “What would you do if everyone’s income were taken care of?” What a financially self-sufficient individual would choose to do in a society of full-time workers is not necessarily identical to what that same financially self-sufficient individual would choose to do in a society in which everyone could afford to live without a job.
Experiments require a control group. This effectively prevents an experimental test of a truly universal basic income. Now, to be sure, some experiments do aim to include universality in their design. In GiveDirectly’s experiment, for example, the experimental units are not individual people but entire villages. In this major study, the treatment groups are each composed of communities in which all individuals are receiving unconditional cash transfers. An earlier experiment in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh also implemented a basic income in several villages, using similar villages as controls. There is even precedent in the developed world: the much-discussed “Mincome” experiment, a negative income tax experiment conducted in Manitoba in the 1970s, used the town of Dauphin as a saturation site; every resident of Dauphin was unconditionally guaranteed a minimum income from 1974 to 1979, when the experiment was terminated.
No current experiment in the developed world, however, includes the use of a saturation site (even though Hugh Segal, the adviser to the Ontario pilot study, initially recommended it). In Finland, the experimental group consists of a random sample of 2,000 individuals who had previously been receiving federal unemployment benefits. Similarly, in the Dutch municipal experiments, participants have been randomly selected from current welfare beneficiaries residing in the respective cities, and Barcelona’s experiment involves a stratified sample of welfare recipients within one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. In Ontario, experimental groups will be randomly selected from self-selected applicants, where eligible applicants are restricted to low-income individuals from three specific regions of the province. And YC Research has designed its experiment as a randomized controlled trial with a target population of low-income young adults in two regions of the US. (See this summary for more information on the design of the experiments.)
A consequence of these design decisions is that all of the above experiments will fail to capture social multiplier effects. For an example of social multiplier effects in the context of minimum income experiments, consider one of the most striking results from Dauphin: an increase in high school graduation rates. Last year, I attended a talk by Evelyn Forget, the scholar responsible for the analysis of the experiment, wherein she described survey data that revealed that the decisions of Dauphin teens to remain in school were due not only to the financial security of their individual families but also to the fact that their peers were able to stay in school as well.
We should expect that work-related behavior could also be susceptible to social multiplier effects. Like teenagers’ decisions to stay in school, adults’ decisions to withdraw from full-time employment might depend not only on their personal financial status but also on the actions of their peers. An individual with a personal source of passive income might be financially able to quit her job, and even desire to do so, but nonetheless choose to remain employed if – and because – her friends and coworkers stay in their jobs. She might, for example, believe that she would become socially isolated if she were to opt out of work while her peers remained in full-time employment. She might think about her lack of friends available before 5 pm on weekdays, or she might feel pressure to continue to earn enough money to continue to engage in costly dining, entertainment, and other activities with friends who remain lucratively employed. She might fear a lack of sympathy or understanding, even ostracism, if she were to become the only person within her peer group to abandon traditional employment.
Furthermore, as discussed above, the potential impact of basic income is not limited to the liberation of those who already desire to downshift; another possibility is that, through social multiplier effects, a basic income could generate this desire in those who had not previously considered the option. Our attitudes and aspirations are also influenced not only by our private circumstances but also by our observations of others’ choices lifestyles, and by our perception of what is socially acceptable. Some who now lack any interest in downshifting might develop one in the face of social or structural changes that legitimate or popularize the lifestyle.
Even experiments with saturation sites would be insufficient to permit us to assess all of these potential effects; the social, cultural, and economic forces that impinge on work-related attitudes and behavior vastly exceed the local scale.
2.3 Experiments exclude net contributors.
A “real world” basic income would almost certainly be introduced in conjunction with tax increases to help to finance the program, which would likely include higher income taxes on top earners. But researchers cannot ethically introduce manipulations that leave some subjects worse off as a result of the experiment. Consequently, tax increases cannot be part of experimental trials. This limits the ability to test how the full policy package would affect work-related behaviors. Even those that have studied taxes and come from financial education backgrounds such as through Northeastern University wouldn’t be able to test how different experiments could affect society and financial systems.
For one, it’s not basic income per se but redistribution – reduction of inequality – that carries the greater potential to curb the demand for positional goods. As mentioned above, a worker might hesitate to downshift if the maintenance of social relationships requires engagement in costly dining, drinking, entertainment, or luxury holidays. In a society with high inequality, a mere basic income might do little to reduce the demand for positional goods, limiting the temptation to downshift or opt out of paid work to live on a subsistence income. Many might continue to feel the need to wear nice clothing, drive a new car, and live in an affluent neighborhood to be taken seriously in society, and thus might continue to prefer greater earnings to greater leisure, despite the possibilities opened by the introduction of a basic income. Conversely, the less that one perceives one’s social status to depend on spending and consumption, the more one might be inclined to trade higher earnings for more leisure time. Policies that mitigate financial inequality, such as progressive taxes on wealth and income, help to address this barrier to downshifting.
Additionally, policies that stymie the ability to become “filthy rich” might discourage those who would otherwise be inclined to choose jobs and careers based primarily on their prospects for financial gain. Sufficiently high income taxes could reduce the role of monetary incentives in selecting work. Limitations on wealth acquisition might push some would-be profiteers to instead seek work that they could find non-monetarily rewarding.
Such effects could enhance the ability of a “basic income plus tax reform” package to transform work-related attitudes and behavior; however, they are bound to be missed in experiments.
2.4 Existing experiments are restricted to low-income populations.
So far, we have focused on limitations that are destined to afflict all basic income experiments, merely in virtue of the nature of experiments. Let’s now turn to a contingent design decision that constrains all current experiments in developed nations: in each experiment, as mentioned above, the target population contains only individuals who are low-income and/or receiving social assistance or unemployment benefits or other benefits or with incomes falling below a certain level.
To be fair, none of the existing experiments have been inspired by questions like “Can basic income provide a subsidy for downshifting?” or “Would basic income promote the acceptance and desirability of lifestyles outside of full-time employment?” On the contrary, most are motivated by the desire to determine whether unconditional cash transfers would be more effective than existing programs in addressing poverty or unemployment. In this light, these choices of target populations seem reasonable. But these choices make the experiments less congenial to the questions of those who are interested in the ability of basic income to facilitate a reduction in paid work.
A test of a policy’s potential to foster downshifting only makes sense if experimental subjects are drawn from a population of people who have the potential to downshift, and “downshifting” typically implies a reasonably well-paying position from which one shifts down. Thus, for an experiment to address our key interests, the target population should encompass individuals who are currently employed in relatively well-paying jobs. An experiment limited to the unemployed will tell us little about a policy’s ability to promote voluntary reduction of working hours. An experiment limited to the poor will tell us little about a policy’s ability to promote voluntary reduction of earnings and consumption.
The inclusion of “successful” workers among test subject is also important with respect to the question of whether basic income would reduce the stigma associated with the receipt of public benefits or, more precisely, voluntary “benefit scrounging” (which is, in essence, just a pejorative term for what I’ve been politely describing as “using a basic income to subsidize downshifting”). Quite likely, the “scrounging stigma” is too strong to disappear during the course of a short-term experiment in any case. If a basic income were to play a role in reducing the stigma, however, it would almost certainly not be by allowing poor and unemployed individuals to live upon government subsidies while they voluntarily opt out of the search for full-time jobs. Unfortunately, such an outcome (however desirable) seems much more likely to feed existing stigmas and stereotypes than to combat them.
In contrast, basic income might have a greater and more favorable cultural impact if it subsidized downshifting among individuals in relatively well-paying jobs and promising career paths – among those, that is, who embody conventional images of success. Society accords respect and admiration to those in lucrative careers, which makes such individuals uniquely well-positioned to attract curiosity, perhaps even sympathy, if they were to spurn the life of traditional employment and choose to rely upon government monies to meet their basic expenses (which is not to say that they would not also elicit the scorn or many others). Admittedly, the idea that basic income could lessen the stigma of “benefits scrounging” is far-fetched. The point at hand, however, is simply that existing experiments are not designed in a way that can adequately illuminate how far-fetched.
2.5 Experimental subjects have already “come of age” in the culture of work.
Each of the existing experiments is focused on effects on adults who have already been acculturated into the dominant work ethic. It is possible, however, that some of the social and cultural effects about basic income would result from its influence on younger generations. Perhaps teenagers would internalize different attitudes toward work if they were to come of age under an unconditional guarantee of financial security – not necessarily taking for granted that a core defining features of “adulting” is to find employment at a full-time job in order to earn a living. Perhaps young adults would formulate different personal goals and ideals of success if they did not face an immediate need to earn money through a job.
In a past feature article for Basic Income News, I speculated that entering adulthood with a work-independent college stipend – which shared some commonalities to a five-year “basic income” – could have played a large role in solidifying my own rejection of the ethic of (paid) work. For example, by allowing me to continue to dedicate myself to schoolwork without worrying about paid work, it might have helped to “prevent me from unlearning” that the fact that an activity is unpaid does not imply that the activity is not worthwhile, rewarding, or hard work – or that it’s not the best use of one’s time.
To some extent, this is just to repeat the point that experiments are too limited in duration to capture multi-generational effects of a policy. In principle, though, one could design a short-term study to test the effects of a guaranteed income on a cohort of young adults at critical transitional phases, such as leaving home for college or leaving college for “the real world” (i.e., usually, either a job or the search for one). But existing experiments are not this.
3. Concluding Remarks
In conclusion, then, I expect the current wave of experiments to shed little light on the question of whether, or to what extent, basic income would promote a cultural shift towards a decreased valuation of paid work. Any apparent evidence that basic income would not have such an effect (e.g. a lack of observed change in workforce participation or self-reported attitudes toward work) could be explained as an artifact of the limitations of experimental design.
Arguably, however, the biggest problem with experiments is not that they most likely won’t show considerable reduction in workforce participation (and yet for reasons that are inconclusive) but that many of the policy’s own proponents don’t want them to. When committed supporters of basic income demand more experiments, as often happens these days, they aren’t doing so because they want to decide for themselves whether to endorse the policy; they already have. The hope, generally, is that experiments would produce results that allay the fears of skeptical policymakers, such as the commonplace “fear” that basic income would cause a decrease in workforce participation. As many supporters are fond of pointing out, previous experiments have not shown a marked decrease in workforce participation, or have shown a decrease only within population segments where reducing work hours is socially acceptable (e.g. school-age teenagers or mothers of young children). This attitude toward basic income experiments only recapitulates society’s overvaluation of paid work.
The policymakers who assess experiments for “failure” or “success” will do so relative to the norms and values of the status quo. Political speeches and media reports are likely to portray any observed decrease in labor force participation as evidence of the failure of the policy, as happened when a negative income tax was tested in several cities in the United States in the late 1960s and 70s. My impression, based on two years of intense work in the basic income movement, is that many supporters realize this but call for experiments nonetheless, believing that the trials will in fact yield outcomes that are “successful” relative to the norms and values of the status quo.
Hence, in addition to being unlikely to produce interesting or useful results, basic income experiments may also threaten to reinforce these norms and values in the minds of advocates and other readers. And, from the standpoint as critic of the culture of work, this is not only unhelpful but dangerous.
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