It is happening in various places around the world. Just the other day, the government in Switzerland offered every adult a guaranteed monthly income of 2,500 Swiss Francs (about Rs 175,000). Every child would get SF625. When someone told me about it, I wondered if it was such a good idea after all. Would that mean that the billionaires in Switzerland would see another 2,500Swiss Francs in their Swiss bank (of course, they are in Switzerland, remember) clubbed along with the billions already there. Would that be the cause of concern?
On a serious note, that raises a more fundamental question about the notion of work itself. Do only the poor work for money? After all, I have seen even the highest paid employees bargain with clenched teeth about an amount that would be less than a percentage of their earning. When someone says, “It is not about the money, it is the principle of the thing that I care about”. You can bet that it is indeed only about the money.
When we see the well-to-do bargain with the road side vegetable seller for a few rupees, is it about the principle or is money simply a feel good factor? It is simply a symbol of the bargaining power of the rich and powerful matched with the helplessness of the vendor.
In a very rational manner, money becomes a way of allocating purchasing power. Every society sets up norms against which professions are ranked and their economic worth is decided. Bureaucrats are handsomely paid in Singapore unlike their counterparts in other countries. A teacher is paid far more in Finland than in most other societies. Does money allocate spending power? Yes, albeit not with any consistency.
The Swiss government’s move to offer everyone a guaranteed basic income was rejected. Maybe it was a sign that work is much more than just money. Work provides structure to our lives. Much as we groan every morning as we grind our way through the traffic, step into the office and settle down to work, it is this very act that creates a structure of what we do in our waking hours.
Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government tested the idea of a basic income guarantee by giving the town’s poorest residents monthly cheques that supplemented what modest earnings they had and rewarded them for working more. The result was that doctor and hospital visits declined, mental health appeared to improve, and more teenagers completed high school instead of being compelled to work and support the family. People did not stop working, but a lot a lot of mothers stayed home to take care of their children.
Work provides meaning in our lives. Being able to find a purpose beyond the transactional value of work can be a great way to understand why we work. Knowing that removing the garbage helps keep the neighbourhood disease free can help the worker cleaning the premises to discover a purpose bigger than themselves. Daniel Pink believes all of us are driven by the need to find autonomy, mastery and a purpose at work. Being able to get better at the work we do is fundamental to being human.
Work is a source of identity. It is not the loss of earning that people miss after retirement, they miss their identity that is left behind. The work we do defines us.
Could it be that in a relatively egalitarian society, the lifestyle of the rich and not so rich is reasonably similar. Hence in Switzerland, the guaranteed income would not substantially recalibrate the lifestyle of the person at the bottom of the economic ladder.
In a country like India, the lifestyles of different economic strata differ sharply. That will make an offer of minimum guaranteed income (at a level much higher than say a NREGA scheme, say at a similar purchasing power of 2,500 Swiss Francs), a chance, for at least the very poor, to move their daily life to a higher level.
Maybe the referendum should have been about minimum basic work instead.
What do you think? Is technology is creating an unequal world where a minimum level of income must be ensured? If robots take away jobs, what will humans do to find meaning?
From my column in The Economic Times dt June 28, 2016
Abhijit Bhaduri works as the Chief Learning Officer for the Wipro group. He lives in Bangalore, India. Prior to this he led HR teams at Microsoft, PepsiCo, Colgate and Tata Steel and worked in India, SE Asia and US.
He is on the Advisory Board of the prestigious program for Chief Learning Officers that is run by the Univ of Pennsylvania.