Why does everyone have to work?

An audio version of this blog post is available on episode 164 of The Pod Delusion, 40 minutes in.

A lot of tasks are carried out by people not employed to carry them out. People care for relatives, cook for neighbours, run clubs for children, look after communal gardens where they live. This is the real big society. Many of these people are not in employment at all, never mind paid to do what they do.

Others pursue hobbies that might bring great joy to them and to society, or provide useful innovations applicable to other things. Writers, inventors, amateur scientists, musicians, artists – all produce things of great worth to society. When people work all hours for an employer these tasks are neglected but when people work less or not at all they are free to pursue these things.

Parents are not valued by society for the task that they do, instead it being expected that both parents in a couple will work

There is worth in a vast number of tasks that are not part of “work” and yet these tasks are not valued by people and government does not see any worth outside of a paid job.

Current attitudes to welfare benefits seem to focus on dividing people into deserving and undeserving poor. Politicians argue that we should have more conditionality in our system; that we should return to an insurance style of benefit for out-of-work benefits so that those who have not spent enough time in work cannot claim the same benefits that those who have worked for years can. They want to take benefits away from those who don’t make enough effort to find a job. The Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity scheme send people to do unpaid work for big businesses and charities, punishing those who refuse by taking away their tiny benefits for weeks, months or even years, even though such “work experience” is often simply manual labour that requires little training and does not help anyone to find a permanent job. Many people express the opinion that those in receipt of welfare benefits should not have “luxuries” such as Sky TV or broadband, and resent such things being paid for by benefits out of tax funds, seeing themselves as personally paying for such things. Indeed, government ministers have floated the idea of paying benefits in the form of payment cards that cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco which is a terrible idea.

The question that I want to ask, though, is why does everyone have to work?

I believe the answer is that they don’t.

In our modern industrial society we have driven down the cost of production through two things: exploitation of cheap overseas labour, and mechanisation and automation. I will come back to the first of these later, but what of the second?

Mechanisation has vastly reduced the need for labour. More could be done to continue this trend, but historically it has been opposed by unions because it puts people out of work. I think the time has come to say GOOD. Let’s put people out of work. Automate everything that can be automated. The remaining jobs should be divided up between everyone who wants to work, reducing the hours of all jobs until all those who want to work have the working hours that they want.

Of course doing so would leave many people without any income, or dependant on Job Seeker’s Allowance and looking for jobs that just don’t exist. (As is already the case.) These people cannot be punished for failing to find jobs that don’t exist, that is indefensible. I propose a change in the way that society thinks about people who do not work. We must stop resenting them, stop begrudging them any small luxuries that they may have, and instead pay them a decent income that allows a decent life. But that would be unfair! Why should they get something that you do not? Well there is a solution to that. Pay a salary to everyone, working or not, deserving or not. This concept is known variously as Universal Income, Citizen’s Income, Basic Income, or combinations thereof. Here’s how it would work:

Every adult citizen would receive a salary, paid to them by the government, of enough to cover basic living costs. It would perhaps be set at a level that would cover one person living in a shared house or a couple living together.

To finance this, the tax allowance would be abolished. Instead the citizen’s income would be paid tax free, and all earnings from other sources would be taxed at the standard rate from the start. Nearly all in-work and out of work benefits would also be abolished. Anyone without a job would stop receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit as those are replaced by the Citizen’s Income. Indeed, Housing Benefit to anyone who is in work would also cease.

Sick and disabled people would no longer receive ESA. They would receive Citizen’s Income too. In their case, though, they have additional expenses and a higher cost of living caused by needing to adapt things around them and inability to access some services so they would still receive Disability Living Allowance to provide for that, and care would still be funded by government.

The benefits that Citizen’s Income would bring are large. There would be no need to means-test people, and means testing is expensive. There would be no reason to track people’s efforts to look for work, and there would be no reason to punish anyone for not working – eliminating a huge bureaucracy required to do those things. There would be no stress and fear of losing benefits imposed on people who for one reason or another cannot work, no Work Capability Assessment – leading to improvements in health and quality of life.

Of course people will object to those choosing not to work, which is why we all need to approach the idea with less judgement. Although benefit fraud is tiny and the number of people who would choose not to work is low, such people do exist. There are people who do not want to work and there are people who are just plain unemployable. Under the current and proposed systems they would be punished for not finding work and ultimately end up homeless or dependant on family or charity if anyone at all. I do not think doing this is the action of a humane society. Would it not be better to let these people stay out of the workplace, avoid employing people who do not want to be there or would not do a good job? It may well be that eventually such people will decide that they do want to work and will then find a job that they want to do and pay taxes. There are many people that do want to work but only part time, and a Citizen’s income would enable them to do so where the current system would make it impossible.

Allowing more people to work for less hours might also have the benefit of making some jobs more attractive so that work currently carried out overseas or by immigrants becomes feasible to carry out locally, thus working towards solving the problem of exploitation of cheap overseas labour.

Such a system would have to be introduced alongside rent caps to prevent private landlords from taking advantage of more available income by inflating rents. I cannot pretend that a Citizen’s Income would not be very attractive to people in some other countries too, and short of introducing the idea worldwide we would have to consider carefully how to treat immigrants. (This sentence makes me uncomfortable, but I think it does need to be considered.)

Citizen’s Income would:

  • Replace the tax allowance and the benefits system
  • Make savings on means testing and administration
  • Allow freedom to work part time, full time or not at all
  • Allow the pursuit of hobbies and interests away from work
  • Produce inventions and innovations that benefit us all
  • Result in the production of books, music and art
  • Allow people to perform services for others and their community
  • Shift the balance of power from employers to employees
  • Provide security when jobs are not secure
  • Remove the fear and stress of disability assessments

The whole idea of Citizen’s Income necessitates a huge shift in the way that our society thinks but since many are calling for a rethink of our welfare system anyway I think now is the time to consider it.

Disclaimer: I am no expert, so if I have made any errors or misrepresented anything please let me know.

Further Reading

Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]

Basic Income Earth Network

Citizen’s Income Trust

A Universal Basic Income

Global Basic Income Foundation


Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

46 thoughts on “Why does everyone have to work?”

    1. Because if a person had basic income they could “work” at that which interests them instead of being forced into a job they don’t like just so they can pay for a roof over their head and food on the table. Besides when you “work” at something you really like, you’re not really working are you … you’re just doing what you enjoy.

      1. why aren’t we living in this world?
        I want to learn so many things and instead we’re stuck at “work” doing useless things during the vast majority of the day. What’s so wrong? Lennon already knew this stuff in his song “Working Class Hero”. Why are we stuck in this system to just… live? 🙁

  1. This is very much along the lines I have been thinking… here’s some more rationale.

    The free market. Assuming arguendo that it does do good things, and our recent experience is to do with missing regulation where it should be and not enough freedom elsewhere, where are we missing freedom? Employment, that’s where.

    No, I’m not complaining about employment protections, minimum wage etc, but I am talking about part of the reason they’re necessary. Can a free contract be truly said to exist where there is a huge power imbalance between the parties? I don’t think so; this argument as applied to consent will also be familiar to many. The potential employee *needs* the job. They need the money, they need to satisfy benefits conditionality. The employer needs someone to fill the job, but for the majority of the jobs they don’t desperately need a particular person. Even in times of supposedly full employment, most employers don’t fight to fill jobs.

    Unions were supposed to redress some of this balance, but even before they were hobbled by Government, they didn’t do it very well. However, if the subsistence, a basic quality of life, of all people is guaranteed – employers will have to offer a deal that potential employees consider ‘worth it’ for them. You could probably lose the minimum wage, but a lot of jobs that are currently minimum wage (or near it) would probably end up commanding a higher wage, because they’re crappy. Some jobs that people want to do would see a wage fall, the market settling down at an appropriate level.

    Of course a lot of other employment rights would remain – the power balance would still fundamentally be in the favour of employers.

    The loss of minimum wage but restriction of benefits to new migrants would also have an impact on economic migration, of course.

    The economics of it would hinge on the fact that few people would, in reality, be content to live on basic subsistence income. People want more. People currently not working would have no incentives to stay out of work, because they would not have anything at all to lose. People who have reduced ability to earn should perhaps get a little extra cash, no conditions except basic entitlement, to reflect the fact that they are less able to improve their quality of life through work. Meanwhile, people who are happy to live on the basic income may still contribute by doing things that people don’t pay for – parenting, caring, volunteering in so many ways (as you recognised right up top).

    I seriously do not believe that we would be ruined by a plague of people willing to live on this very basic income and not do anything productive. Even those who do do this probably won’t find they want to do it for long.

  2. Another thing to think very hard about – we do not need everyone working age, able to work, working full time in order to keep everyone in a pretty nice lifestyle. So why is our economy still predicated on this idea?

  3. And then there’s the slightly lefty moral argument.

    What is a Government for? Surely the most fundamental thing a Government is for is to protect the population. There is a moral imperative for this, and it is borne out in our police, our ambulances, our health service, our armed forces, fire and rescue, social services. Protection means ensuring everyone’s life, health and safety. Shelter, food, clothes and basic entertainment are actually necessary to that. Short of protecting other people, no-one should be deprived of those things, for any reason.

    As an aside, I would also make people in prison work for their keep – not degrading work, not for the profit of third parties, but work for the prison or for the wider community. A basic amount of work for their keep, and let them earn some pocket money. Is this in contradiction with my main point? Sort of, but the thing is, people are in prison for a reason, and they should actually be paying a debt to society. Oh, not including remand prisoners, immigration detention, etc – just people serving custodial sentences.

    1. Something else to consider with regards to the topic of prisoners… many studies have shown that there is far less crime in societies with less social stratification. If Basic Income were implemented, I reckon we’d see a massive reduction in crime.

  4. See, this is one of my long-rambly-disjointed thowts on the matter. It sort of seems like the whole rhetoric of “scroungers” is working because it whips people who are miserable and hate their jobs into a frenzy. “I hate my job, but I do it! Ergo, everyone else should be working and be just as miserable as I am!”

    But, thing is I don’t want anyone to be miserable. I don’t want anyone going to a job they loathe solely to put food on the table. Life shouldn’t be about working from the time you leave school until the day you die unless you’re doing something you at least LIKE. We’ve been so trained to just keep our heads down and plod forward, turning the Great Work Ethic into some Holy Grail of existence. And I don’t get it…truly I don’t.

    I want everyone who ever wanted to write a book, make a painting, or perform in a band or orchestra to be able to do that – and never be told “you’ll never make a living doing that.” I want everyone who wants to be able to start their own venture to be able to do so. I want them to fail maybe – make spectacular mistakes, and learn from them to be bigger and better at it. I want people to not be afraid of who is watching and judging whether what they’re doing is “worthy”.

    And I really, REALLY want such an idea to not be automatically dismissed as a fantasy, or as totally impossible. I think it is; I’m pretty sure it would be perfectly possible if people were willing to actually fight for it rather than just read the news, shake their heads, mutter a bit and then go right back to doing the same damn thing and snarl about the “scroungers who have it so easy.”

    But that’s just me.

    1. That sparked a thought that’s occurred to me on this issue before…

      One of the reasons the scrounger rhetoric works so well is jealousy. Pure and simple. “Why should he/she be getting more than I am? I work!”. A universal income removes that, because *everyone* would be getting it.

      1. I think that’s a very important distinction to make – it really cuts to the chase of the whole “us vs. them” mentality which is what makes all the scrounger labelling so appealing. It will still be quite difficult to convince people even so, and it’s worth putting thought to how to make it not seem like “charity” and getting the whole Hardworking Taxpayer view to gel.

    2. The thing you said about Work Ethic being a “Holy Grail Of Existence” is genius! Yep your not quite right unless you do a shitty job you hate to afford to live a shitty life you hate! NOT!

  5. I think in the not too distant future there will be adaptable robots something like those in the Asimov books, and they’ll be approx the price of a washing machine. They will be able to farm, clean streets, build houses, assemble cars etc etc. And of course, they can build more robots. They’ll make it economical to recyle everything, even to the point of digging up old landfill sites and recyling the contents.

    In short, all work will be done by robots.

    We won’t have jobs and income to buy stuff so the products of the farm and factories will have to be given away or the farms and factories will have to be closed down and the unemployed left to starve.

    We won’t need pensions, and if we need a new factory we get robots to build it so we won’t need a finance industry. That’s the City of London stuffed, won’t be needed.

    It took a hundred years to go from the Wright brothers to the space shuttle.

    I think it’s inevitable that such robots will be built.

    I reckon we do need to start thinking about what sort of a society we would have if the need for work was removed.

  6. About immigrants, the different experimentations, especially the recent one in Namibia shows that even people who don’t receive Basic Income benefit from it. How?

    Because of the economic activity, the fact that people have money so they can buy stuff and services. Money is THE way to create (I really mean create) wealth or value in our societies. It’s the mean to exchange things we produce for other things we produce.

    Basic Income injects money in the system at all levels, to everyone. So everyone is able to exchange, then economy grows.

    Still, it would be harder for immigrants to make a living than for nationals. And, perhaps, as was pointed in the comments they would essentially access low paid jobs with no minimum income.

    But one thing to remember, no country likes to see all of its inhabitants fleeing it. So there may be kind of a wave of people heading for BI countries, but at a moment the countries from which the people are fleeing would have to take decisions to counter it. The best one may be to implement BI as well ^^
    And of course it’s not such an easy decision and task to leave one’s country, family and friends.

    1. This was also my thought. Contrary to popular belief, as it stands the package for immigrants in the UK is nonexistent. The only people who get any benefits are people who are from war-ravaged countries who literally have no other option but go somewhere or die. In fact it’s been reported than many immigrants from the EU are going back because prospects here are worse than they are in their countries of origin. I need to find the document but it’s been reported than the foreigners who are crammed into sheds/etc are more often than not part of the slave trade and prostitution rings. They’re not here because of cushy benefits – they’re here because they were lied to.

      It is quite possible the adoption of such a system would probably be adopted elsewhere – but this would require a fair bit of fight against the groups and corporations who don’t want to lose profits and that’s the bigger fight: convincing governments to loosen their chokehold on their populations. And “convince” I think means fight. People don’t tend to want that (we’re too well trained to think of that as terrorist acts or disturbing the Almighty status quo), but I can’t imagine that any government would want to introduce this kind of system without a fight.

      1. They would if it was shown to be in their interests.

        I agree that it’s going to take a lot of work to get Basic Income implemented, but I think the real struggle will be educating the people and convincing them, not just that it’s a good idea, but also what it is. Just about everyone I’ve talked to about it so far has had a really difficult time getting their heads around it. And when they finally do get it, then you have to deal with the common objections like ‘everyone will sit on their backsides all day and the economy will implode’ and ‘it would be way too expensive’ and ‘i’m not paying for someone else to do nothing’ and ‘that sounds like Socialism’ etc etc.

        As for the government & big corporations… how exactly would Basic Income be seen as threat? How exactly would they lose profits?

        1. “then you have to deal with the common objections like ‘everyone will sit on their backsides all day and the economy will implode’ ” – seems to echo the main objection to Intuitive Eating ‘But if you don’t restrict what you eat, you’ll eat far too much junk and get fat!’ ignoring the fact that bodies get tired of eating the same things all the time and eventually make you crave food that you actually need. Similarly, people get bored of sitting around doing nothing for more than a couple of days- initially, it’s great! You get a rest! But then you just want to get up and do the gardening or something.

  7. I’ve followed the links, and I still don’t understand where the money to pay the basic income comes from. If you scrap the entire welfare state, take that £200bn, and distribute it between everyone, you get £64 per week, or £75 per week ignoring children. Is that what you mean? If not, what?

    1. It would require more than just the scrapping of the current benefits system, but that’s fine. There are many different ways Basic Income could be funded. For example, we could switch all taxation to one single VAT at around 50% (which is what they all add up to anyway). The benefit of this approach is that the tax system is greatly simplified (again, reducing administration costs) and everyone sees exactly what’s going on. No one who buys stuff can avoid tax, and the amount of money ‘pumped out’ via VAT is then ‘pumped back in’ as Basic Income.

      It’s elegant solution, but not everyone’s preferred solution, since it relies too heavily on consumerism. It does, however, have the big advantage of being easy to understand and implement, in that all the needed infrastructure is already there. Also, imagine the bureaucracy that would be wiped out, and all that expensive tax dodging no longer needed, accountants no longer needed, etc.

      1. The problem with taxation all being done in VAT is that it has a tendency to be regressive. Some people don’t mind that – I would. However, a very tiered system of VAT would be fine, with higher rates on luxuries and so forth. VAT is the one sure way of getting money from the takings of foreign companies that they make in this country – it only affects the price floor of items, not their market value, as the total price including VAT has to be what the customer is willing to pay. Of course, that’s when market values actually function properly, which they often don’t.

      2. Wouldn’t people saving lots, or spending money abroad, break this system?
        Houses and heating fuel would become even more stupidly expensive than they are now.
        The figures for VAT are here:
        Increasing it to 50% would have brought in an extra £125bn last year (assuming everything else stayed the same, which is a stupid assumption, but…)
        What kind of level would the Basic Income be?

    2. Some of the savings come from admin – it’s much simpler and cheaper if there’s no conditionality to check, and far less qualifying criteria. Then there’s the removal of the personal allowance from the tax system. You’d probably need some more revenue raisers and cost savers than that, but there are lots of levers to push.

    3. The amount should at least be similar to what people people receive at the moment through JSA/ESA and Housing Benefit. A number of things would be scrapped to pay for it – JSA and ESA, Housing Benefit, the whole system for administration and means-testing of benefits, Tax Credits, the personal tax allowance. However I missed that it would require slightly more income tax to be paid overall. This would affect higher earners more than low earners. People would pay tax on all of their earnings but would keep their basic income instead.

  8. Excellent and important article. Especially “There is worth in a vast number of tasks that are not part of “work” and yet these tasks are not valued by people and government does not see any worth outside of a paid job. Current attitudes to welfare benefits seem to focus on dividing people into deserving and undeserving poor.”

    You can also find lots more resources, links and news at http://www.livableincome.org/ including 10 reasons why we need a guaranteed livable income (basic income or citizen’s income) http://www.livableincome.org/whyagli.htm especially see #4 on Redefining Work.

  9. Absolutely spot on. Let’s form the “unconditional basic income” party. With the sole policy to introduce the citizens income and stand a candidate in every constituency at the next General Election. 600 candidates raise £500 each and wed get a free prime time party political broadcast. That should do the trick. Who’s with me? http://corruptbstard.wordpress.com/about/

  10. I’ve dealt with this very thought numerous times in thought experiments, and one thing that particularly struck me about it was that the current taxation system creates what’s known as a ‘perverse incentive’ for the government.

    When you look up the government’s budget, and in particular where the money it spends come from, you might start to see the problem, and why it impacts on ideas such as this one; The sources, after all (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxation_in_the_United_Kingdom for instance, though more reliable but less readable sources exist, obviously), show that income tax + national Insurance (which, let’s face it is functionally very similar to income tax in the conditions under which it is collected) amount to roughly 50% of all tax revenue.

    From the government’s perspective, to improve their finances would involve encouraging whatever activities are associated with any given form of taxation. (VAT would naturally encourage pro-consumer policy for instance.)

    It should come as no surprise whatsoever then, that a government where 50% of it’s income is related to people having paid employment, would create policies that encourage as many people into it as possible, regardless of whether this is ultimately a good idea or not.

    As to welfare, there definitely is some benefit to be gained from reduced administration costs.

    I heard at one point (but unfortunately could not really figure out how to verify the accuracy of the statement) that about 80% of the entire welfare budget is taken up entirely with administration costs.

    Given a budget of around £200 billion, that actually means £160 billion of that is admin costs… Which is a scary thought.

    If you take that into consideration, assuming the admin cost could be eliminated (you’d never get rid of it entirely, but surely 80% is excessive, right?), then in effect you could run the current system with about 70% or so of all claims being fraudulent and still spend less on it than we do now.
    Obviously without knowing precisely what part of the administration is costing that much that’s a bit of a naive statement, but it’s scary to think how much money is potentially being wasted just for some perversely idealistic notion of ‘catching cheats’.

    Still, a system such as what you’re suggesting does make sense, although I do think to really keep it stable we’d have to try and wean the government off of ‘income tax’, because that seems to be the real underlying reason it tries to insist that everyone should have paid employment.

  11. So happy to see this here! One of my problems with the current anti-cuts/ anti-welfare reform movement is that it often plays into the ‘deserving’ vs ‘underdeserving’ paradigm, emphasising the horror stories without saying that we all deserve the means to live, regardless of our circumstances. Sometimes it seems like a mass extended S&M session, with the neo-libs doing ‘Take that!’ while the left almost seems to revel in ‘It hurts so bad!’ stories while defending the current system, which itself is very complex and demeaning. (I speak as a former claimant and now benefits advisor, a job I would very much like to see rendered unnecessary.)

    Most of the points to make have already been written both in the post and comments. A few extra:
    Where will the money come from? The endless wars and bailouts/QE I think have put paid to the idea that there is any real lack of it. I think it also makes sense to stop taxing income and goods and go to a land value tax, higher taxes on corporate profits and taxes on purely speculative investment. This is where our surplus resides – and when say, higher taxes on corporate profits existed, everyone was better off while private fortunes continued to be made. It’s worth keeping in mind that the bank bailouts 2008-10 alone would have put £2000 in the pocket of every person in the UK.

    The why bother working ‘problem’ is a red herring, mainly brought up by people who don’t like their own jobs. This needs to be turned on its head to ask – what about all the people who do so much for nothing, who are the ones actually doing the work of keeping our society together – whether that’s parents, general volunteers, etc? Also, as rightly pointed out in the post, people forced to work often don’t do a very good job of it. I can also think of a lot of people I would happily pay to stay at home and do nothing – most of the current government and the titans of the financial sector, for a start. Jobs at any cost – the defense of anything ecologically or socially damaging (like say nuclear power or weapons manufacture) just because it provides jobs – is ringing hollow, now we know that the damage these do is threatening our own species’ extinction.

    A basic unconditional income – or what some call citizen’s dividend in recognition that most private fortunes are made off the back of massive public investment, via infrastructure, services or even straight hand-outs – has the potential to free people from fear and unleash their creativity to find real solutions to the problems we face. We need to find different ways to organise our work together away from the de-humanising corporation/bureaucracy. We’ll also have to fight the current theology of the market, but that god is crumbling before our eyes.

  12. Have you considered children? Do they get Citizen’s income? If so, at what age? I think that a lot of people will try have as many children as possible just so that they claim more Citizen’s income… an action which at some point may have detrimental effects to the system.

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