Fouksman: We must reassess ingrained attitudes to work

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At Autonomy's Challenging the Work Society summit, researchers discussed what trials of Universal Basic Income reveal about our assumptions around work

Embracing the future world of work requires us to rethink ingrained attitudes to employment, according to Liz Fouksman, a Leverhulme early career fellow in the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Speaking at think tank Autonomy's conference, she explained how such attitudes mean Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been portrayed as a failure because more people receiving it aren't in work. A two-year pilot of UBI in Finland revealed that while wellbeing improved the scheme did not encourage more people into work, leading many to question its viability, Fouksman said.

"A lot of basic income trials measured success by if people worked more or not. It's interesting that the results of the trial in Finland were portrayed as a failure because people failed to work more when they received an income, despite levels of increased wellbeing. Why is working more seen as a measure of success?" she said.

She went on to speak of her time in Namibia where UBI has also been trialled. In January 2008 a Basic Income Grant (BIG) pilot project began in the Otjivero-Omitara area. All residents below the age of 60 received 100 Namibian dollars per person per month, without any conditions attached, whatever their social and economic status.

The results were overwhelmingly positive, with poverty, child malnutrition, and crime all falling considerably. People also tended to work more and set up their own businesses. However, the government chose not to continue the trial.

Fouksman interviewed people who had been long-term unemployed or in precarious work in Namibia and found that they were often deeply resistant to UBI's long-term benefits despite evidence suggesting this can be a route out of poverty. She found that people had internalised ideas about the morality of work, as well as assumptions around certain, more traditional kinds of work being superior to more entrepreneurial endeavours.

"They said people will either sit around and do nothing or spend money in ways that are morally bad, such as on drugs or alcohol. They never thought they themselves would do this, but were worried their neighbours might," she said.

Full-time work was still seen as something to aspire to, she said: "There was a strong nostalgic vision of full work membership. When I spoke to one woman she said 'they should build a factory in this village, that's what we really need'. When I pointed out that very few people work in factories now because of automation she didn't know what to say."

Fouksman added that many of these opinions were reinforced by the notion of meritocracy and the assumption that the very rich had earned their wealth rather than inherited it or been lucky. "There is an implicit notion that if you have money you must have worked hard to get it," she said.

"I asked people about taxing the wealthy and to my surprise people were very against it, with the belief that those with excessive amounts of money had worked hard for it. This is in South Africa, with its history of apartheid, so there is a racial element to who is wealthy and who is not. It shows that there is nothing natural about this work ethic; a lot of it was imposed by colonialism."

The idea that work, rather than increased leisure time, is a force for good is relatively new in social history, Fouksman went on to explain. "Critics of post-work theory would say that there are benefits of work outside of money – that it provides a sense of belonging, that it's good for your emotional and intellectual wellbeing. But the relationship between work and all these social goods is a recent one," she said.

"In the early 19th and 20th centuries increased leisure time was pointed at as a moral good and as a way for the working class to improve their lives. This is possibly because people who were wealthy used to see leisure time as a sign of status, whereas now long working hours are seen as impressive," she said.

"[People] who argue that we do not work just for money like to point out that work can provide us with hope, aspiration and identity. But can we imagine ways beyond work that can give us these things?"

Autonomy's two-day summit focused on the benefits and challenges of reducing working hours. The think tank has previously produced research on the four-day working week, and set up a consultancy to support organisations in transitioning to a 32-hour week.

Further reading

Wealth distribution in the future world of work

Universal basic income around the world

Wealth distribution: Universal basic income

Wealth distribution: Stakeholder capitalism

Four possible future worlds of work

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