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Compensation Cafe: Are We Ready for Basic Income?

By Derek Irvine

Recognize This! – A guaranteed income could bring substantial changes to the world of work, from increased meaning, to crowdsourced compensation, to more freedom. But will it work?

Experiments in basic income are beginning to happen across the world, with the potential to change the way we work. When technology can increase productivity while lessening the need for human workers, observers question whether the former industrial model of employment will continue into the future. A major question remains: what will take the place of work, and what will people do?

Those questions can bring a lot of uncertainty around the promise of everyone receiving a guaranteed income regardless of employment. Proponents point to the ability to contribute to greater happiness and quality of life, as well as a greater emphasis on meaningful work. Opponents worry about the feasibility, as well as what the impact on motivation and productivity will be. The recent ‘nay’ vote in Switzerland suggests that these concerns still outweigh the potential benefits.

In a recent post on Compensation Cafe, I write about some of the changes that basic income could bring. First, however, it is important to understand the fundamental shift in the way we think about work.

Basic income is fascinating because it reshapes the core ideas that many of us hold about work, ideas that began largely with the Industrial Revolution. Barry Schwartz succinctly captured this very dynamic in his TED talk: “we created a factory system consistent with the false idea of human nature [of inherent laziness and the need for incentives in the form of pay]” and once in place, “there was really no other way for people to operate except in a way that was consistent with [that] vision.”

Those ideas can be hard to change, but if we can, there is a lot of potential upside to creating institutions that rely on meaning and relationships between people, instead of a paycheck. Here are just a few of the benefits I discuss throughout that post (read the whole thing here):

Work can become a much more human experience, designed in such a way that offers employees the ability to see and strive for meaning and value in the contributions they make. Perhaps even to follow their passion.
Employees may emerge as a source of crowdsourced compensation for their colleagues; not only seeking meaning for themselves, but giving meaning by recognizing the contributions that make a difference in their work.
The capability of technology to take over the mundane or repetitive tasks, as we have seen in manufacturing and may soon see in the knowledge economy. This represents yet another point of freedom to design work that is meaningful and aligned with one’s own values and mission.

It will be interesting to closely follow this trend as more small-scale experiments are carried out, and we begin to learn whether these benefits can truly outweigh the costs.

What are your thoughts on the benefits versus the costs of a basic income?