“Earning” a Living?

In 2017, the erstwhile Conservative MP Nick Boles wrote that the main objection to introducing Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not practical but moral. The risk, as he saw it, was “we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants“. He goes on to claim that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it, it gives us sense of identity, purpose and belonging so we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work“.

Well, at least his objection to UBI is honest rather than trying to hide his moral objections behind economic feasibility arguments. But the two main problems I have with it are:-

Clearly Boles finds his own work satisfying, giving him a sense of identity, purpose and belonging (as well as a decent salary). Although true for many jobs, Boles assumes this is true of all. At the low paid end, many don’t even “earn a living” if that phrase means paying you enough to meet your and your family’s basic material needs. And many jobs certainly fail to “earn” you a sense of identity and purpose. The worst case is when people have to switch from work which gives them identity, meaning and purpose to work that does not but pays them enough to live on.

And, what about reasonably well paid but so-called “Bullshit jobs” ? As organisations grow, they tend to require more and more people simply to maintain the organisation while an ever decreasing proportion of their workforce directly serve the organisation’s core purpose. As the late David Graeber pointed out, huge swathes of people spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary (i.e. it wouldn’t actually matter to the organisation or certainly the wider world if their job didn’t exist). These are often the better paid and educated people in middle management and Graeber argues that such jobs lead to profound moral and spiritual damage.

Conversely, Boles seems to believe that people do not (or cannot?) gain a sense of purpose, identity and belonging from, for example, “writing poetry, playing music or nurturing plants“. His underlying assumption seems to be that, if the work isn’t paid then (a) it’s not actually work, (b) it’s not of moral or personal worth and (c) it isn’t making a positive difference to the world we all live in. What about other work which is unpaid? – looking after your children or an elderly or disabled relative, growing your own food, creating and cooking meals for family or friends, doing voluntary work or running a community activity, event or organisation, helping out your neighbours, listening and talking to others, generating and trying out creative ideas. Every one of these activities, I would argue, earn you a valuable role in society and one which you may well be uniquely skilled or motivated to fulfil. If nothing else, the pandemic has demonstrated how critical such work is to the sustainability of any society.

The fascination for me about UBI is that it recognises the intrinsic worth of every individual, rich or poor, educated or not, healthy or unhealthy and equips them with the basic means to live without scrabbling for any work however unrewarding added to the daily stress of trying to pay the bills. But, it also frees every individual to find and create their own purpose, fulfilment and identity, the motivation they can experience by doing something they enjoy and which makes a tangible difference to the world and others around them.

What, Mr Boles, is the moral problem with that?

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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