I embrace Universal Basic Income and envision the end of work as we know it
“Look at you; look at what you’re doing. You’re engaged, you’re learning, you’re sharing. I think that’s useful. We don’t call it work because you’re not doing it for money.”
The Couchsurfing app connects me with Amre. I arrive at his spartan apartment in Tallahassee, Florida with a six-pack. Amre cooks couscous. We sit on his sofa and eat from plates on our laps. The guy hasn’t got a table. In the morning I’ll be gone. We’ll likely never meet again.
“UBI promotes the creative stuff you’re doing. In its purest form, UBI covers essential expenses. You receive it simply for inhabiting the earth.”
As our evening progresses, Amre enumerates the merits of Universal Basic Income. Other folks I’ve met along my journey have used the term, but no one’s explained it with such fervor, or clarity. I’ve been riding my bicycle fourteen months now. Over 20,000 miles. Meandering through all 48 contiguous states. Hundreds of people have invited me to share dinner and shelter. I ask every one of them the same question: “How Will We Live Tomorrow?”
“I like the ‘we’ in your question. It implies community. No one in our social system is asking this.”
Amre embraces my query with vigor. Or perhaps I’ve just become expert at discussing it, this late in my adventure. December, 2016. Florida is my terminal state. I plan to reach Jacksonville by the 21st; then Amtrak up the East Coast to be home by Christmas.
“We are living abnormally.” Amre continues. “It began with the industrial revolution, and has grown more unsustainable ever since.”
Deep and earnest intimacy blossoms between two people who come together over hospitality and intention. I offer snippets of personal history: aspirations; children; career. Amre shares immigrant trials that span Syria, France, India, Venezuela, Miami. The guy’s energetic, articulate, intelligent, movie-star handsome. I can’t imagine an IT support job and a rudimentary Tallahassee apartment will mark the end of his story. His perspective is far too expansive.
“We can proceed for one more generation, perhaps. But your children, and my hopeful children, will grasp that we need to change. That we need balance.”
Amre counters my singular query with questions of his own. “What provoked you to this journey?” How has it changed you?” “What advice would you give to your younger self?” I understand that ‘your younger self,’ means when I was Amre’s age. Our complementary souls mark beginning and end points of American’s central phase of life: the work years. Amre, in his twenties, formal education complete, is embarking on career. I’m in my sixties, retired, liberated from the pursuit of compensation. I am his role model: unjaded survivor of the work world, curiosity intact. He is my inspiration: young man with broader vision than I held at his age.
“Some things will have to be forced in order to achieve necessary balance. There will still be wars and struggles for power. But I am optimistic. I can see that we will get there.”
I didn’t plan my crisscross of America to correspond with a great political drama: the Presidential campaign of 2016. It just turned out that way. I pedaled throughout primaries and conventions, rallies, and debates, while people’s definition of ‘we’ became ever-smaller; their vision of tomorrow increasingly myopic. As our nation spiraled into cynicism and mistrust, I came to see myself as an antidote to our culture of fear: a vulnerable guy; traveling slow; embraced by thoughtful, friendly people, open to exchanging ideas. I found accord with most everyone I met. But I particularly appreciate newcomers, like Amre. Immigrants convey the most prescient insights. They express unbridled faith in our founding ideals. Such is the value of outsider perspective.
“I thought everyone here would be very hard-driven. I don’t find that at all.” Amre notes. “Yet, I believe America still has the idea of freedom. It still has more opportunity than most of the world, much more than Old Europe.”
Amre doesn’t consider UBI a welfare program or political gimmick. He explains the relatively small portion of the public budget it will consume, the bureaucracy it will unspool, the collective trust it will inspire.
“I do not believe this will make people lazy; they will be energized. If everyone who makes a non-economic choice can be happier, then universal income will lead to greater creativity and happiness.”
Amre’s enthusiasm for UBI reinforces other concepts I encountered during my pilgrimage: the exponential labor savings of automation (Detroit); the connection between consumption and sustainability (New Mexico); the ongoing quest for equity (Lower East Side). Over the past 400 years, capitalism has been instrumental in raising life expectancy and living standards. But it’s also thrown humanity and nature out of whack. Capitalism is predicated on continuous production, which yields continuous growth, which results in continuous despoiling of our planet. It straightjackets a person’s value as their capacity to work. Today, it takes so few people to produce so much more than we need. Which is why we must rethink capitalism. Which fundamentally means: rethink income; rethink work. Amre opens my eyes to how UBI acknowledges every human’s intrinsic value by accommodating basic needs independent of paid labor. As such, it offers a path to ease away from capitalism’s destructions.
Five years have passed since my evening with Amre. Much has changed. Although UBI hasn’t been instituted in its purest form, it is the undergirding idea behind the recovery checks issued during the pandemic, and as well as the recently expanded Child Tax Credit. We haven’t eliminated work, though the pandemic and Zoom have modified many jobs beyond traditional definition.
Still, the major mind shift required to redirect from constant growth towards common equity looms distant. All politicians of both parties still clamor for economic growth instead of advocating economic balance. Work is still seen as the primary measure of an individual’s worth.
Universal Basic Income will not eliminate work. Rather, it will make work a choice. Those who might be content with a simpler life can opt to pursue non-economic dreams. Others will choose paid work in order to gain creature comforts. However, having that choice will change the nature of work forever. Rote, low-wage, routine jobs will be automated. Those jobs that remain will be more creative and engaging.
Beyond transforming our attitudes about work, UBI will reframe other challenges. Income inequity could actually increase, though I maintain inequality that accommodates basic needs and offers individual choice is fairer than the economic insecurity many face today. UBI will (hopefully) slow the economy down according to traditional measures, as some opt out of the workplace; make things rather than buy them. A desirable step toward a more sustainable planet. But the most important thing UBI will do, on an individual level, is release us from fear that our basic needs will go unmet. We will be free to pursue whatever makes us most fully human.
Four hundred years ago, the dawn of capitalism and ensuing industrial revolution invented our current definition of work as an activity divorced from the rest of our daily lives, whose purpose is to generate money to survive. The twentieth-century refined that concept; as work conferred status and influence, and defined our identity. In this century, let’s champion the technology that enables us to provide basic needs for all. Let’s reimagine work as a choice.
I’ve never seen Amre again. But the grand vision of UBI he offered me one night in Tallahassee holds clear and bright.