I have a battered copy of the lyrics to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 in my knickers drawer.
“Nine to 5, yeah, they got you where they want you. There’s a better life, and you dream about it, don’t you?” spoke to me when I picked up the karaoke sheet while clearing glasses for minimum wage some years ago.
We’re reminded constantly that the best things in life are free – that no-one shuffles off this mortal coil having wished they’d worked more. And the work you do should be fulfilling – choose a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life (this particular phrase most often delivered in a smug tone by someone who has yet to work a day in their life, either figuratively or literally).
On the other side of the coin, joblessness is bad. Governments are proud to show off statistics about employment rising and those of us on benefits are encouraged to take any job we can.
We invent driverless cars, cleaning robots and other technologies that might deliver job automation and therefore more precious spare time for us sentient beings, then wring our hands about the necessary job losses these will cause.
Paradoxically, a Silicon Valley firm thinks it might have the solution.
Start-up incubator Y Combinator is giving 100 families in Oakland, California a basic income of $1,000-$2,000 (£770-£1,540) a month for between six and 12 months. Y Combinator president Sam Altman writes on his website: “I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale.”
Universal basic income is not a new idea – its roots trail back as far as the late 18th century – but a growing number of economists and politicians from both the left and right are seeing the benefit in a set UBI.
It is a major change for any country to make – earlier this year 77 per cent of voters in Switzerland rejected a plan to introduce UBI. But as technology advances and the void in wealth and opportunity equality widens, isn’t a major change what we all need?
Were we all to receive, for instance, £1,000 a month then we could all benefit from these technological advances, not just CEOs and shareholders. With the underlying torment that we are all a wage packet or two from potential poverty taken away we would have the freedom to find that job we love (while no doubt helping reduce the growing rate of stress-related diseases).
Some might realise a philanthropic aim so far refused to them or spend more time with family. Those who love their jobs could crack on. Entrepreneurs could still make lots of money. But potentially so could people currently on the breadline, who would no longer be treated with suspicion as “benefits scroungers” since we would all receive the same basic income.
Jeremy Corbyn has shown interest in the idea. Speaking to the Huffington Post he said: “We have to think radically about how we bring about a more just and more equal society in Britain, how we develop policies that achieve that.”
In 1928 economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would mean that by 2028 everyone in the UK will work a 15 hour week.
Like Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”