I’ve written before about how leisure is far more important than work, and while it might just be the nearing of summer and holiday season that’s distracting me, I see no reason not to talk about it again.
This time I’m prompted by John Harris’ article last week exploring the emergence of Universal Basic Income as an increasingly mainstream political idea (although it remains to some extent on the fringes).
Universal Basic Income (or UBI) would involve every adult in the UK, regardless of wealth or employment status, being given the same weekly amount to cover the basic cost of living.
The numbers suggested vary, but are usually between about £70-£100 a week. Assuming the lower end of this scale, across the 51m adults in the UK, this policy would have an annual cost of at least £187bn.
A free handout worth £4k for every person every year? Surely not. In a period of austerity, no government would entertain it, and no party could expect to gain many votes from an electorate more motivated by self interest than social feeling. But the benefits are potentially enormous – and ones that in economic terms could outstrip the cost, starting with eating into the £56bn welfare budget.
In helping prevent poverty it would also alleviate the economic impacts of low income on health and the NHS.
Those in work might be incentivised to work less, creating more job opportunities without causing a decline in workforce participation or welfare claims. Away from the financial bottom line, the social benefits – among them alleviating the needs of those most disadvantaged – are enormous.
This final point is crucial. Our current busy working lives afford us little time for either leisure pursuits, cultural activities or self-improvement – even though all three are in high demand. As our recent focus on the future of work has suggested, the skills required in the future will not be the same as they are today. The Government’s own commission for Employment and Skills points out that by 2030 the rapid pace of change in this area will require constant investment in skills and capabilities. UBI would give those in the workforce the chance to engage in the continuous training that would support this.
Another key element of this – and of the work life balance overall – is our leisure time. Relatively speaking, leisure has never been more important to adults in the UK, and in an experiential economy it’s not hard to see why.
Leisure is no longer the absence of work but the basis of our identities.
If UBI allowed us more leisure time, then while part of that might be spent binge-watching Kimmy Schmidt, it might also be an opportunity for community activism, volunteering, learning new skills or trying new things – all pursuits of long term benefit to both our individual lives, society and the economy.
For businesses considering the workplace trends they need to be aware of in the future, UBI should be high on the list, as although any changes to our deeply ingrained 5-weekday, 2-weekend professional working weeks may be unlikely, it would also be hugely disruptive. Its arrival is made unlikely in part by the trend that continues to dominate both consumer mindsets and political actions (and has done since the start of the recession).
The New Morality places UBI in the context of unearned income and free handouts that result in a short term loss to the UK’s balance sheet. As ever, the longer term picture suggests a different story.