We don’t know what the future holds, but some in the tech industry are predicting a massive displacement of workers in the future. State jobs reports tend to confirm this expectation, as automation is thought to be increasing and threatening to displace low-skill workers.
Some see the downward shift in employment rates as an overall positive, arguing that taking people out of so-called menial jobs will free more people up to be creative and more effectively human. To support the displaced workers, there are a number of people calling for universal basic income.
Universal basic income proposals come in several forms and variations, but a simplified version is this: Everyone will be guaranteed at least a certain amount of income per year. Essentially, the government will write everyone a check for an amount deemed appropriate to support basic living expenses. Wages from compensated employment would either add to that basic income or displace it, depending on the proposal.
There are a number of arguments to be made based on the economics of the model, but more concerning are the psychological effects of permanently subsidizing the unemployment of the able-bodied. After all, once someone ceases to contribute to society (or feel like they do), they often suffer from depression and feel life is meaningless.
Work is a God-ordained means for experiencing meaning via community & participation in economic exchange.
What about Volunteering?
Proponents of universal basic income are quick to argue that work done on a volunteer basis is no less valuable than work done for pay. This is a valid assertion with regard to the benefit for the community. There is room to argue that volunteering offers similar benefits: personal engagement with others, a sense of contribution and purpose in daily living.
However, Ryan Avent, an editor for The Economist and author of The Wealth of Humans, argues that paid employment offers specific benefits. For example, paid employment permits a person to control the trajectory of their lives, at least to some degree. The need to work to live inspires greater participation in the workforce and a sense of accomplishment.
And this need to work is far less than a bourgeois concern of the middle class. Avent states,
People of all backgrounds also seem to value narratives of personal ambition and responsibility. People wish to have control over their economic lives and to be seen as contributing both to society and to the well-being of their families. People desire agency. (220)
Universal basic income advocates offer a possible solution. Perhaps the government could require volunteer service or job training to receive the benefit, thus simulating a sense of agency and contribution in exchange for a basic income check. However, Avent goes on to argue that, in general, people “do not wish to be forced into unpleasant work by the need to feed their families, but neither do they want to be written of as unnecessary – or assigned meaningless work as the price of a generous welfare cheque.” (220)
The Search for Meaning
What Avent is pointing to here is a search for meaning in the world. Humanity is always searching for meaning (or claiming to make meaning), and one of the ways people find meaning is through work.
This search for meaning through work is not new. For example, Luther’s writings on station and vocation emphasize the importance of vocation on life’s meaning. Nor is it specific to Christians. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and holocaust survivor, discusses finding meaning through work even in his existential worldview.
In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl discusses a form of depression among those out of work that he calls “unemployment neurosis.” This neurosis, he claims, “really originated in a twofold erroneous identification: being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless with having a meaningless life.” (142) In other words, people’s inability to contribute economically to the marketplace, their families and their communities left them feeling they had no purpose.
Frankl notes this feeling was dissipated when he persuaded patients to volunteer in a host of community activities. It was not merely the economic situation that caused the depression, but their lack of engagement. Frankl notes, “The truth is that man does not live by welfare alone.”
The evidence Frankl provides support for universal basic income advocates who feel that a check in the mail and an opportunity to volunteer will be enough to provide meaning without paid employment. However, Avent notes, “Survey data suggest that, over the last decade, people saddled with extra free time thanks to weak job markets spent much of it sleeping and watching television.” (220)
In other words, while unpaid work can fill the void of meaning, for most people the need for community engagement for meaning does not provide sufficient incentive to get out of the house.
Ultimately, Christians understand that meaning is found only through life in Christ. However, work is one of the God-ordained means for experiencing that meaning through community and participation in economic exchange. People pay for what they value, and being paid affirms the value workers bring to the community.
Universal basic income sounds attractive because it fixes the immediate problem by feeding people whose skills may not match the market opportunities. However, as simple as it sounds to implement, a universal basic income may undermine and discourage the social structures that facilitate human flourishing and help people find meaning in life through work. There is a great deal more to discuss, but the side effects of a universal basic income may be more significant than some of its proponents suggest.