With more and more jobs being consumed by automation, analysts have proposed the concept of a universal basic income (UBI). But the idea is not new. In 1797, activist Thomas Paine proposed that governments should pay everyone £15 annually for the loss of their natural inheritance i.e your right to work the land to feed and support you and your family, from the earth due to the state taking it away.

In January this year, Finland launched a two-year trial of the basic income scheme. About 2,000 unemployed citizens between the ages of 25 and 58 now receive a basic monthly income of €560. The move has understandably earned nods and criticism. In a fascinating social experimentation move, these citizens will continue receiving the income even after they’ve found jobs.

“It’s highly interesting to see how it makes people behave,” said Olli Kangas of KELA, the agency responsible for managing social benefits in Finland. “Will this lead them to boldly experiment with different kinds of jobs? Or, as some critics claim, make them lazier with the knowledge of getting a basic income without doing anything?”

A few thousand miles away, the Swiss citizens rejected a similar plan in a referendum. More than 77 per cent voted against it.

“The harder challenge is: How will people have meaning? A lot of people derive meaning from their employment. If you’re not needed, what is the meaning? Do you feel useless? How do we ensure the future is a future that we want, that we still like?”
Elon Musk

What is undeniable, however, is that there won’t be enough jobs to go around, as automation squeezes its grip on the world. According to a study jointly conducted by Oxford University and the Oxford Martin School, 47 per cent of jobs in the US are at risk of being automated in the next two decades. The industries facing the highest risk are transportation, logistics and office and administrative support. After all, automation decreases costs, and while it’s logical to think that only the menial jobs will be replaced, it’s not true.

Credit: Getty Images

On the contrary, it makes more financial sense for a computer to replace the highly-paid doctor than the nurse who isn’t as well paid. High-level but repeatable jobs such as lawyers and auditors are also at risk of being replaced by robots. This is already happening. Last year, Baker & Hostetler hired ROSS, an AI lawyer powered by an IBM cognitive computer.

Supporters of UBI say…

That the richest 85 people in the world own the same as the poorest three billion. That’s a damning statistic. Today, about 200 million people worldwide are unemployed. This number is expected to grow, with one out of 11 jobs disappearing within a decade. There are not enough jobs to go around. The UBI model ensures that people are taken care of and can afford the basic necessities.

Detractors of UBI say…

That it’s impossible to fund the UBI model and would require governments to dramatically increase taxes across the board. And, if everyone is unemployed, then where will the government get funds from? They believe that the UBI scheme will also create a disincentive to move humanity forward through work and innovation.

“We have to make some tougher decisions. We underpay teachers, despite the fact that it’s a really hard job and a really hard thing for a computer to do well. So for us to reexamine what we value, what we are collectively willing to pay for – whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole – that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.”
Barack Obama

Will UBI Work in Singapore?

It’s an important question to ask. The sharing economy is already upon us – quite a number of young people, the backbone of any nation’s economy, have decided to drive for Grab and Uber full-time to earn money – and it won’t be long before we need to embrace robots in order to remain competitive.

Furthermore, our country has no unemployment benefits and strongly encourages its citizens to work, to put it bluntly, until our deathbeds. The CPF scheme is wholly dependent on you working for an employer and does not take into account freelance or part-time work. While the wealth transfer initiatives we have to help those down on their luck are quite robust, perhaps it is time we start considering UBI, or some variant of it, in the near future.

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