The concept of a universal basic income (if a way can be found to achieve it) could help address a combination of problems. It would replace the administratively complex, expensive and psychologically debilitating benefits system. It would avoid people doing jobs which don’t pay enough for them to live on. It would allow people to give up a job they hate in order to study or to develop or practice a skill or to look after an ageing relative. It also addresses a future where increasing automation means there are fewer and fewer permanent jobs. If we also factor in so-called “bullshit jobs” – i.e. jobs which seemingly make no difference whether anyone does them or not, then an alternative form of income would be even more welcome.
But, if a universal basic income could pay every UK citizen enough to cover their basic needs whether or not they had a job, what would people then do with their lives – could they flourish without ‘a job’ to go to?
A number of research bodies are now exploring what constitutes individual and societal well-being or prosperity when that is decoupled from our current way of measuring it solely in terms of GDP. As, Robert Kennedy famously pointed out 50 years ago “the Gross Domestic Product …measures everything .. except that which makes life worthwhile”.
I’ve never studied the role which paid employment plays in our sense of well-being once we have enough income to cover our everyday needs. But I have studied other kinds of experiences outside of work which we don’t get paid for but which clearly energise and satisfy us. Can we learn anything from those?
A few days ago, I reread some behavioural research which I carried out a while ago. We were exploring how and why experiential consumer products were compelling – often more so than material products. Over a period of years, we had worked with clients on experiential products in some very different domains: art, sailing, digital technology, rugby and education. As we analysed the language people used to talk about their experiences (good, neutral or bad), a clear pattern emerged of 3 distinct but overlapping dimensions which increased people’s enjoyment, engagement and a desire for more.
The 3 dimensions which emerged were: stimulation, individual expression and social connection. Not all 3 were present in all experiences but when they did combine, those were considered the most powerful and engaging experiences.
This was the degree to which the experience stimulated either people’s physical senses – their sight, sound touch, taste or smell – or their minds – their intellect, ideas or imagination.
This was the degree to which people could express their personality, skill or creativity though the experience – i.e. make the experience unique and different through their interaction with it. In all the domains we studied, we found that this dimension created the most deeply satisfying experiences which last the longest after the stimulating event is over.
This was the degree to which the experience triggered a sense of belonging or intimacy with others. In some cases, this came from the shared exhilaration of achieving a challenge together or sharing a moment of intense emotion. In other cases, it was competitive – feeling a rush of adrenalin from pitching their wits or skills against another person.
It seems likely that the world of work operates on the same 3 dimensions. Where people are lucky enough to have a job they really enjoy, it’s probably because it scores highly on one or (if they are lucky) all 3 dimensions. They are physically and/or intellectually stimulated; they can express their individual creativity or skill and affect what happens and they feel part of a vibrant social group achieving things together or matching themselves against others.
Conversely, if they lose their job or are stuck in a “bullshit” job, then their language probably reflects the painful absence along one, if not all of the 3 dimensions. They are bored and depressed – lacking any challenge or new ideas or imagination. They feel that they have nothing to contribute, they aren’t able to make a difference and have lost a sense of their identity and self-worth. Finally, they feel isolated – they no longer belong to a social group who share a common activity and purpose. I’m guessing (but I don’t know) that even if they received the same income as when they had the job, they would still feel negatively along our 3 dimensions as none of these (I think) are strictly dependent on the actual ££ income involved. (Although the amount you currently get paid can be interpreted (albeit inaccurately) as what you are worth in capitalist rather than social terms).
It would be interesting to test the correlation between pay and well-being in terms of the 3 dimensions.
The fact that the positive experiences which working can deliver might be independent of income gives me hope for people’s sense of well-being in a world where there are no jobs for a vast swathe of the population. If there is a means whereby everyone can be provided with a universal income which covers their basic needs, then the challenge is for all of us to find and develop diverse activities and experiences which pay no money but deliver just as compellingly engagement (in many cases much more) along one or more of the 3 dimensions discussed. For society’s sake, we also need these to contribute to the well-being of communities. Professor Tim Jackson’s recent discussions of the human service sectors of the economy namely care, craft, culture and creativity might be a way to explore this further.
But, how we can test this in the messy real world? I don’t currently know but even thinking about the possibilities engages me (whilst not being paid by anyone directly to to do so!) along at least two of the experiential dimensions!