Escape from the work-for-wages

George Dutch

As a career counsellor in private practice, I work on the front lines of job loss, a negative experience for most individuals.  But I also see how certain ideas about work get in our heads and control the way we think and feel.  For example, my client, Robert, was laid off this past January after seven years as a Firmware Designer in a small hi-tech firm.  He got a generous severance package based on his six-figure income.  In his mid-forties and financially solvent, he consulted me about the pros and cons of taking some time off to relax with family. 

Robert’s algorithm engineering skills are in high demand so there was no risk of him not finding another lucrative job after 6-12 months of unemployment…but he felt he couldn’t afford to take that time because he was worried about his mental health—he felt anxious about not working! * The importance of work as a source of status and meaning in our lives  acts as a kind of psychological straightjacket.  He soon opted for a new job with a U.S. employer that required him to travel once a month, further reducing his time with family.

Even when work is not an economic necessity, it is often an internalized control apparatus that submits all of us to certain assumptions, such as one must earn a living in order to be living.  But this link between work and wages is only a social convention, one that we can change at any time.  And, that’s what excites me about the Basic Income (BI) movement—it’s potential to liberate human beings from old ways of thinking to new and better ways of living! 

Earlier this year, our federal Parliamentary Budget Office presented a model showing that a national BI program is affordable.**  A pilot in three Ontario cities—Hamilton, Lindsay, and Thunder Bay—is underway with costs and benefits being studied for impacts on individuals, governments and society.  Beyond that, perhaps now is the time to consider a major restructuring of our economy in a way that will truly liberate us from some of the structural flaws that led to this pilot project.  For example, owning stuff produces more income these days than working for wages.  But, about 10% of the world’s population owns all the stuff—and let’s not forget that much of it was obtained through crime, corruption, coercion, inheritance or luck—which is contributing to expanding social inequities that fuel civil unrest and political conflict. ***

Such restructuring presumes a different type of society than the one we have now but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it.  Culture and society are fluid not fixed.  For example, it took a century to move in the West from an agrarian to an industrial economy, even longer to move from slave-based to pay labour, and as long to enfranchise women to vote in democracies.  Most would agree that these changes were for the better of the common good.  If we put values first and technical details second, we can transform to something that is better for more people.

As a starting point—not an ultimate fix—we could explore the establishment of a Common Treasury that recognizes our shared wealth to form the basis for a Citizens’ Job & Income Guarantee. 

A Common Treasury.  We might begin with a Public Resources Value Tax involving higher rent extraction and licences from Common resources such as minerals, airspace, spectrum bandwidth, sea resources, public risk underwriting and government licenses.  Norway, for example, established in 1990 an Oil Fund that uses surplus revenues from its petroleum sector to fund the largest penion fund in Europe, now worth about CAN$200,000 for each Norwegian citizen.  The same principle could be applied to intellectual property and technological innovations if we acknowledge that all technological advancements today are built on the work of previous generations—the gains of which come to all of us as a free inheritance but are currently captured by a small percentage of people through patents, copyright, and other instruments.  Already the productivity gains from many technologies are adding to the incomes of the world’s richest 10%. To restore some balance, we might begin with a social equity fund that invests in the very technologies (robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, data mining) that replace jobs.  A common treasury might provide an “income guarantee” in terms of direct “dividend” checks to citizens in order to fuel an economy organized around the production and consumption of goods and services.

A Citizens’ Job & Income Guarantee (CJIG) is not to be confused with a Universal Basic Income (UBI), or similar initiatives that are pegged to a minimum income to eliminate poverty but are opposed publicly and politically in many circles as money for nothing.  Each  CJIG by contrast would work at least in some way for the common good,  such as child, elder, or friend care, and hundreds of other meaningful activities, as conventional jobs disappear.  The infrastructure to match individuals to such work exists now in career centres operated by provinces, colleges, and nonprofits that could pivot to meet new priorities.  A CJIG could also liberate creative and ambitious individuals to develop their own ideas and talents for new ventures (in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors) that are currently stymied due to lack of resources.  That is why, ideally, it could be pegged at approximately $75K per year****, the amount needed to raise a family, save for a decent pension, and lead a dignified existence in Canada, while removing the stigma of socially beneficial work that needs to be done but does not have a valid business model in our current economy.  

What kind of society do we want to live in?  Do we want to throw off the straightjacket of work=life thinking and emancipate many citizens to protect and promote the best of civilization while stimulating marketplace production and consumption?  The real battle is in the political arena to determine which values will direct civil society, and then how those values will be implemented through our cultural institutions, including work. 


* Depression (and related mental health disorders) is the number one workplace disability in North America (World Health Organization, 2016, Fact Sheet, Depression).  And it does not pertain primarily to blue-collar workers.  In a study for Health Canada on work-life balance, researchers Linda Duxbury & Chris Higgins found that public servants at the federal, provincial and municipal levels earning the nation’s highest average salaries reported the lowest levels of job satisfaction and the highest intention to leave.


*** Research by Credit Suisse

**** Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a major study by Nobel prize-winning economists that concluded this amount of annual income is what individuals today in our society need to lead a dignified life.