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Basic income and the future of work: Potential for social disruption

Basic income and the future of work: Potential for social disruption

in Opinion/Poverty Reduction by

I have always loved school.  After high school I attended university and several years after graduation I completed a graduate degree. Wanting to dive into peace and justice issues, I returned to university at age 50.

Formal education has enriched my life and opened doors to new types of work. One of the things I learned, as a literacy practitioner is that not everyone was as keen about the value of school.

One of the people who came to see me for an educational skills assessment was a 54-year-old man on social assistance. His past work experience consisted of working for two manufacturing companies in Cambridge, Ontario.  He had left high school to work at a time when jobs were plentiful and a high school diploma not required. This man was not fired; he did not quit, but rather both companies closed.

Like many manufacturing companies in Ontario, they likely left for the U.S. or the global south seeking lower wages or less stringent labour and environmental regulations.

Basic income and the future of work: Potential for social disruption
Judy Paul.

My client’s literacy skills were such that he would need to spend a significant amount of time upgrading just to begin credit courses. He said to me “why do I need my Grade 12 to push a broom?”

At that moment I glimpsed the reality of older workers who were not ready or able to retire, but who did not have the formal education required to secure decent paying work.

The gentleman in front of me was doing temp work, which as his comment above implied, did not demand a high level of skill.

It didn’t seem appropriate for me to suggest he pursue a grade 12 diploma, which may or may not improve his job prospects. In addition it might take a couple of years to complete a diploma and at his age he probably couldn’t afford to do it.

So what about this man who had worked all his adult life and found himself without a steady, well paying job 10 years from retirement? Today, opportunities for individuals with limited education are temp jobs, part-time work in retail or food services, or seasonal work such as landscaping or roofing.

These workplaces are typically low paying and people often need 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. The increase in the minimum wage to $15 by 2018 is a step in the right direction. There is still however, the problem of those working part-time who need full-time hours to survive.

Increased automation and the use of robots are transforming the world of work. Economists describe a situation in which productivity is rising, but employment is not.  A loss of manufacturing jobs seems obvious as companies seek to increase production efficiency.

Admittedly there will still be a demand for jobs in health care, education, software engineering, etc., because this work requires human abilities and skills.  Not everyone however will be able to complete the education required for these careers.

This scenario could result in a potentially significant social disruption and has implications for policy.  The basic income is a policy that could address the changing nature of work and redistribute the wealth generated from technological innovation.

Can we see the basic income as greater motivation to work as opposed to a disincentive as some have suggested? With enough to cover the essentials of life through a basic income, I believe most people would work for non-essential goods or services.

If only temporary or part-time work is available, a dignified life would still be possible. I fear that without a basic income, people like my middle-aged client face a bleak future of social assistance and precarious temp jobs.

That reality can too easily lead to despair.  Instead of a society where some feel marginalized, I envision communities in which all people feel included and supported by our collective prosperity.  In this way we are all stronger.

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Judy is interested in promoting ideas that shift our society in a more just, sustainable direction. Newly retired, she spent her career facilitating positive change in the areas of adult and family literacy, mental health, community development, and outdoor recreation. As a volunteer, she worked on climate justice issues, peace education with youth, and blogging about local food. Judy lives in Haliburton where she loves to ski, paddle, read and watch the birds.


  1. I agree with you. It’s time to re-think how Canada’s economy works and how it could best serve our entire population. I also wonder about linking basic income and volunteer work somehow. All those who are willing (probably most) could work at certain volunteer jobs (e.g., hospitals, food banks, other community services), and there could be a monetary structure to basic income so volunteers earn extra. Many of what we now consider volunteer jobs are actually essential services as well as valuable and rewarding work.

    • Hi Bonnie

      Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that there is a wealth of interesting, meaningful volunteer work in our communities that as you mention are sometimes essential services. “Meals on Wheels” comes to mind as a valuable service that helps to keep elders in their homes and that work is made possible by volunteers. I believe most people on a basic income will want to work because it feels good to make a contribution and be a part of something larger than yourself.

  2. I oppose incentivizing basic income. One of the major goals of basic income is to restore to individuals their basic dignity and making income dependent on volunteer work exéats that goal. It also makes volunteer work paid work.

    I also disagree teaching jobs cannot be replaced by robots to a large extent. More and more families are choosing to home school where their children attend Ministry classes online. They are taught by teachers still but nowhere near as many as the class sizes can be 200 or more. Also, online education saves infrastructure costs. So don’t count on education services as a sure thing. They aren’t.

    I am skeptical whether the whole notion of a just society can be realized, economically, without a global government and I am more than skeptical about the possibility of a just global government unless internet technology is used to give most decision-making directly to the people via referenda. But perhaps in such a governmental organization, much of the bureaucratic work can also be downloaded to the otherwise idle public we are worried may revolt if not occupied with gainful work.

    • Hi Joan

      You raise an important concern that with the basic income a type of “workfare” may return requiring people to “volunteer”. I support of a “no strings attached” basic income. It would then be up to the individual if they want to engage in paid work or (unpaid) volunteer opportunities.
      Do we as a society, fear idleness? As someone who studied and worked in the leisure and recreation field I believe that most people will find a way to fill their days. The basic income gives people the ability to choose and construct a life they find meaningful.

  3. Hi Judy,

    I appreciate your balanced essay in The Lindsay Advocate , “What the Nordic Countries can teach us.”

    Too often, writers take an ideological stance on a topic and argue solely from that perspective. Your essay showed that you acknowledged the uniqueness of cultural factors in the Nordic societies, and the mix of capitalist enterprises AND government institutions which serve the needs and preferences of their citizens.

    In my university studies on macro-Economics, I was taught that every nation possesses inherent Economic advantages and disadvantes that are unique to each. Through largely trial & error, entrepreneurs in each country find ways to serve markets profitably using the relatively plentiful Economic factors that are favourable to reach and serve those markets. Sometimes these factors are resource-based; sometimes climate-related; and sometimes human-related such as a highly-educated workforce (one of Canada’s advantages) or a source of plentiful inexpensive labour (India, China, Mexico has this).

    As a business man of 40 years and an enthusiastic student of Economics, I have learned first hand how complex and nuanced the discussion of economic variables can be for the prospects of prosperity for a business as well as for a nation as a whole. Government leaders are poor at picking Economic winners and losers, and should not be involved in this role and their proactice of corporate welfare.

    Still, it is fascinating to see how the cultures and the various economic players have conspired to create the public policies of the Scandinavian countries as you suggested in your article. I am sure that they have experienced their share of policy failures as well as successes over their respective pasts.

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