How universal basic income can change the way we think about work (and money)
What would you do if you got 1.000 euros per month, no strings attached? Would you quit your job? Pay your debts? Save enough money to travel around the world? Would you start your own business? Would you do some volunteer work?
The rise of automation, rampant inequalities and the potential loss of over 40% of jobs by 2030 is making the idea of basic universal income (UBI) more than a fanciful utopia. Beyond fiscal policy and economic debates, at the core of this issue, however, is what we think jobs should be and ultimately our relationship with money.
The UBI debate forces us to question our deepest beliefs about what an individual should do to deserve a minimum living standard, what we consider meaningful work and what society values in terms of “economic activities”. While some countries are already starting small trials, others do not want to wait until their government wakes up to do something about it and are starting to create alternative solutions, to experiment with and for the people.
Mein Grundeinkommen is a German non-governmental organization that crowdfunds and raffles off unconditional basic incomes of 1.000 euros a month. They have even helped kick-start other similar initiatives around Europe. Steven Strehl is a Platform Engineer and Digital Campaigner at the German NGO. He talked to us about his experience and how UBI could change the way we think about our jobs.
This interview was made with Camille Chapuis.
Compared to other UBI initiatives, like the one organised by the Finnish government, your project is completely crowd-funded and organised by the people. Given your big success so far, do you think more governments will open to the idea? Is that part of your goals, to eventually influence public policy?
Steven Strehl: Our goal is to spread the word about basic income and to see through the stories if people actually want it. We don’t say UBI is the ultimate goal, we’re not even sure ourselves — How could we? –, but we think that it is one of the most positive visions at the moment for future societies. It is also one of the few, if not the only one that goes together with automation. It questions power and, at the same time, empowers people to have important discussions about money with each other.
The most rewarding outcome on a daily basis for me is, after going to events to talk about it, when people come to me and say “oh you know, when I came here I was against it, but I see you, and you asked some good questions and that has made it personal for me and I like being asked questions without being pushed to like it, so now I want to try it!”. And that’s the key! It is not about having endless arguments about basic income, nobody knows if it will work or if it really leads to the solution we have imagined, but we want to give this promising idea a try.
What made you commit full-time to the idea and experimental reality of universal basic income?
SS: That’s a question we pose ourselves at Mein Grundeinkommen quite regularly when we onboard new colleagues. I realised very quickly that basic income was a concept very close to my heart. I come from a workers family from Eastern Germany and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was practically no work for qualified workers of the textile industry anymore. The German government struggled a lot to requalify all these people and getting them back to work. My mum was a textile worker and her qualification was worth nothing from one day to the other. That made it hard for her to raise my sister and me. Because money was always an issue and there was never enough, as soon as I could, I started to work. Money for me meant to be independent, to be free to do what I dreamt of independently from what my mother could afford. However, soon I realised that ‘work’ was actually in the way of what I really wanted to do. During school, I did not think much about this, but at some point, I had to take a grant to keep financing my studies when I left Berlin on my own to live in Paris at the age of 17 because I wanted to learn French. That meant paying a room, food and school supplies by myself.
Universal basic income is about so many things, it is about power and freedom, it is about deciding for ourselves, it is about family, relations, and so much more.
By the time I was 18, I already had my first credit to pay back. But the money had given me some kind of freedom to make decisions. During my first studies of Linguistics and Social Sciences, I discovered that programming was intriguing and I found the idea to have a bigger salary in tech very tempting. It would make it easier to pay back my debts and financially emerge from a working-class background. During my second year of Computer Science studies, I was encouraged to apply to a fellowship. In the application process, I had to talk about someone who inspired me. I chose Götz Werner, the founder of a German drugstore chain and a major supporter of basic income; reading about him and his ideas really opened my mind to basic income and dynamic hierarchy. I ended up getting the fellowship which meant having money for free for the first time in my life. And it came from an institution that assumed that if I could concentrate on what I really wanted to do, without financial sorrows, I would achieve something good for me and for society.
However, only talking academically about basic income made me impatient because I realized this would not make it happen. There are so many scientific models that say that it works and propose ideas of how to implement it, others that say it would not work because is not financially or socially possible. This was very far from reality, there wasn’t any trust to actually move towards putting it in place. So during one workshop, I proposed to other fellows to put our grants of one month together, finance a basic income and give it away to someone, without any conditions in order to provide a person outside the academic world with this empowering feeling of trust. I contacted Mein Grundeinkommen, as they were already raffling out Basic Incomes at that time, I pitched the idea and they liked it. Luckily they happened to have a vacancy in the team for a software engineer and I joined them two years ago.
For me, the most important part of basic income is not fully implementing it our societies. I can’t say if that will ever happen and what shape it might take. Right now, I am fascinated by the enormous amount of questions that we get to ask ourselves and society. And the scope of approaches it opens to make automation a socially positive shift. Universal basic income is about so many things, it is about power and freedom, it is about deciding for ourselves, it is about family, relations, and so much more. That is why I made it my full-time job.
You’ve already given 132 basic incomes in Germany, what are the most fascinating discoveries? What have people done with those 1.000 euros that surprise you?
SS: It is really difficult to just pick one story because so many people with very different backgrounds have won. That makes the entire experiment really surprising. But I can give one example, the most unexpected one came from a freelance business coach. From the day she started receiving the money, she decided to do something different with her clients, instead of asking for a fixed hourly rate, she gave the freedom to her business clients to decide what they think her work was worth. The most intriguing part was that her clients had a very hard time dealing with this new system and actually asked her to stop the experiment and just tell them how much she wanted for her work. They stated that the uncertainty of the price they will pay was getting in the way of focussing on the actual work. I find fascinating that people had such a hard time answering the question of how much someone’s work is actually worth to their company. The initial fear was rather that they might just pay her very little.
Apart from that, our discoveries have been very promising and motivating. Very few of the winners quit their jobs. If they did, it was to educate themselves to find a work that was closer to their skills and professional needs. Thanks to the UBI, they had the possibility to take their time and there was no pressure to jump from one job to the next one with the fear of maybe not finding something better if they say no to the first opportunity. In general, the winners reported increased health conditions, better relationships and an overall relief.
We don’t say UBI is the ultimate goal, we’re not even sure ourselves — How could we? –, but we think that it is one of the most positive visions at the moment for future societies.
One of your experimental projects is to offer paid internships without any obligation to work. How have your interns reacted? Have their ideas of what work and money mean changed?
SS: Our unconditional internships are actually basic income experiments. Our interns get paid 1.000 Euros a month and they have no obligations to do anything. The result? They are the most powerful in the organisation! We have a dynamic hierarchy and they have the freedom to move and work in whichever area they prefer, so they end up being way more powerful than any of us in a positive way. They ask questions, they reflect on how we work and as soon as they find something that excites them, they commit themselves fully to it. That’s how our most inspiring colleagues joined the team. Do you need to define a framework for people to work so they can be productive or should they get complete freedom to do so? The answer is not a simple yes or no. As soon as people are not asked to do something specific anymore, of course, it is harder because you have to set the frames yourself, but it also means you get to question things.
We had some rare cases when an intern stopped coming to the office and said: “Sorry, you’re not providing the working environment I want to work in any more”. We talked about it because of course, we want all the team members to be present, so this liberty helps us realise when we need to improve in a specific area. Something we’ve had to change for example is the inclusion dynamics within the team. We’ve worked really hard on making them feel empowered and with the same degree of involvement in everyday decisions, regardless of their title and salary. It has been a shift of culture so everyone feels they can learn from everybody. Bottom line, it is about trust, communication, co- and self-leadership.
There is a lot of debate about the ‘universality’ of basic income. Not everyone agrees that everyone should get “free money”. Why do you think universal is the best approach instead of focusing only on the most disadvantaged ones?
SS: The first thing is that targeting ‘poor people’, whatever that means, would make basic income a marker in society that you do not have enough money, so it is discriminating. The second thing is that you would need an administration to define parameters of poverty. The problem is that poverty can be a very personal feeling, that depends on more things that just net income. Moreover, the idea of not having any administration to redistribute the money, but just give 1.000 Euros to everyone in society is the most cost-efficient and money saving as well.
The two biggest myths around UBI is that it’s far too expensive and that it would push people out of the labour force. Even though there is ample evidence to suggest that does not happen, I think we shouldn’t focus only on economic metrics but on people’s life quality. How do you think we can change that paradigm? Shift the debate?
SS: I think that if there is a demand in societies for basic income, individual economic security or some kind of guarantee for life dignity, that paradigm shift will come, regardless of what the economic models now say. Politicians and economists lack ideas for the post-capitalist society we are very close to. We are in the middle of a transition and there are no answers to very basic problems such as very low wages, increasing poverty and rising inequalities.
Mein Grundeinkommen does not pretend to have all the answers, but we believe that when people are informed they won’t be afraid, they will feel part of the transition. This may create a more positive ground for politicians to just take the ideas and make them a reality. UBI won’t happen from one day to another. A lot of things need to change before, from how we innovate to what we consider valuable work. And most importantly we need to separate our personal identities from our work titles. We need to want to break free and assume our choices beyond money concerns.
How many people end up in careers they do not like just because it provides some financial stability? And why are few financial incentives provided for jobs that really hold our society together and make our lives worth living?
We need to realise how much society is losing by driving people with the wrong incentives. How many teachers, philosophers, linguists or caregivers have we lost for the sake of making money, for the sake of surviving? I have been lucky in my life so far, but I do not want this to be the default in our society — that you need to be lucky to have a minimum of dignity. This is an enormous paradigm shift and it might take some time, but it will come from the increasing demands of the people for a better life. Whatever that means for each individual.