Could a basic £21,000 salary be the future of work?

Could a basic £21,000 salary be the future of work?

7 June 2016

In a national referendum on Sunday, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would see every adult citizen paid more than £1,700 each month, regardless of whether they worked or not.

The plan was rejected by 77% to 23% of the popular vote, and none of the major political parties came out in support of it (the referendum was triggered when an online petition reached 100,000 signatures). Even so, the referendum has sparked lively debate and raised a number of important questions about the future of work. And senior politicians in the UK are interested in learning more details.

The proposal was tabled by a campaign group called Basic Income Switzerland and it called for every adult to be paid an unconditional monthly income. Set to correspond to the high cost of living in Switzerland, annual basic ‘salaries’ could clear £21,000 each year.

The Swiss proposal reflected the increasing automation of work in Switzerland and in developed countries around the world.

As more and more jobs become automated, there is less work for the humans to do. And since automation affects more menial jobs first, it is usually those on the lowest incomes that lose their jobs first and suffer the most.

But there is still a lot of scepticism about the policy, which smells a lot like something for nothing to many people. Swiss opponents of the scheme argued that disconnecting work done and money earned would be harmful to society.

Others raised concerns that, if Switzerland offered a basic income to everyone, then there would be a huge influx of people claiming residence or citizenship in the country.

Those in the ‘for’ camp, however, did point towards some benefits of the scheme.

The basic income would allow people to pursue other types of work like caregiving to elderly relatives or voluntary work in the community. It could also encourage people into more inspiring forms of work like starting a business or doing something culturally significant, safe in the knowledge that they have the basic income safety net to fall back on.

Because the basic income is paid to everyone, it would also do away with what many people see as an ‘unfair’ benefits system. Under a simpler basic income system, there would be no need for jobseekers allowance, no need for a state pension and no need for housing benefits, everybody would get the same.

Can we expect a basic income in the UK?

Although the proposal was rejected in Switzerland, there is evidence that the idea is picking up momentum around the world. Finland is in the process of trialling a similar system and the Dutch city of Utrecht plans to start a trial early next year.

In the UK, the idea has been around for a while but until recently it was the exclusive domain of the more minor parties. A basic weekly income of £72 formed one of the Green Party’s central economic policies at the last general election.

Now though, it appears that Labour is taking the policy more seriously as well. The party’s shadow chancellor said that basic income: “is an idea Labour will be closely looking at over the next few years.”

The debate around basic income is likely to get louder and livelier over the next couple of decades. Watch this space to see what happens.  

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