Basic income and work: Potential for social disruption

Columnist Judy Paul.

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.

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 robotsare 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.