The danger of so-called “free money” not only underpins critiques of universal basic income (UBI), but also the incredibly strong narratives that underlie the attitudes to work in the UK (and elsewhere) – and our unemployment benefit system. Paid employment is held up as one of the ultimate markers of being a valuable member of society, with those not in paid work (always described in these narratives as a voluntary position, rather than as the result of issues outside their control) seen as a drain on society. Those out of work are positioned in direct contrast to those in paid employment: the shirkers versus the strivers, the “welfare dependent” versus the hardworking families.
For those in paid work, working hard and being constantly busy are worn as a badge of pride, and there are whole industries promising to make us more productive and efficient. For some, hard work is enforced through workplace monitoring, impossibly short breaks or expectations of staff being “always on”, for example responding to emails outside work hours. Work is idealised as providing meaning in our lives, while at the same time removing us from other sources of meaning, such as family, friends and our communities, through long hours and unpaid overtime. The negative psychological, social and physical effects of these narratives and assumptions are now being investigated, and the centrality of work in our lives and society questioned.
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