If you were to pay every person in this country a stipend equivalent to the full state pension, from birth to death, it would cost around half a trillion pounds, or nearly two thirds of the national budget.
And it wouldn’t be enough to live on.
This, in the simplest possible terms, is the difficult maths of the Universal Basic Income, a subject gaining growing attention in the face of rising threats to jobs from automation.
Of course, you wouldn’t pay everyone the same amount at every stage in their life. It’s a nice idea in theory, but some people simply need more than others. The more you tweak the system though, the closer you get to today’s complex, unwieldy and expensively-administered welfare state.
Which somewhat defeats the point.
The costs also wouldn’t be so straightforward. For example, what proportion of that stipend would come straight back in taxes? Replace the tax-free allowance with the stipend and you have a bigger addressable income to tax. Extra spending would return, in part, through (modified) VAT.
There are also inflationary effects to consider, particularly on housing.
But it’s worth doing the maths (not ‘math’, American readers) on this idea. Because at some point we’re going to have to do something.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is (sadly) not a panacea. But it could be part of a wider solution. A solution that recognises and addresses our crumbling infrastructure — roads so pot-holed you need an off-road bike to navigate them. A solution that aims to address the desperate lack of homes. A solution that revalues some of our most critical roles in society: care, and teaching, for a start.
These things are complex, and often associated with the priorities of one or other political wing. So they merit less discussion (or more rancorous discussion) than a universal income, a simple idea that has been proposed at some point by people at every point on the political spectrum.
At some point though, we need to face all of these issues, and more.
Security in transition
Where UBI does have a major role to play is in providing security for those facing change. And that will be all of us, at a growing number of points throughout our lives.
Even if we doubled the minimum wage, invested massively in infrastructure, and created a whole set of incentives to attract new employment to the UK, the employed are likely to find themselves having to find new employment with greater and greater frequency. Beyond the most basic transferable skills, it’s likely we will have to retrain and return to education in some form on an increasingly regular basis.
On my next podcast, Dan Sodergren makes a compelling argument that employers should bare some of the responsibility for this retraining. As he points out, if you’re short of people with digital skills, surely it’s cheaper to retrain some existing staff than go through the costs — and risk — of new recruitment in what is currently a sellers’ market.
But often there won’t be an employer any more, if they have failed to keep pace with the changes. Or the skills upgrade required will be more than a few months of night school: maybe it’s a year or two of study.
In these cases, people will need more support.
Don’t fear the reaper
When I work with companies to help them understand the future, and make changes to help them survive and thrive in that future, I don’t get involved in the human aspects of change. My role is about vision, strategy and structure. Other people are massively more qualified than me to handle the difficult business of helping people to make change. But that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of how difficult many people find change.
Part of this difficulty I think, comes from the loss of security. UBI would at least underwrite people’s transition phases, ensuring that retraining was not done without an income and that people could be ambitious when changing direction. UBI wouldn’t remove people’s fear of the unknown or the loss of status inherent in moving from an established role to a new one. But it could at least ensure those fears aren’t amplified by financial insecurity.