Switzerland is soon to vote on the possible introduction of a basic guaranteed income for all citizens; regardless of their employment status or circumstances. The amount will be 2,500 Swiss francs (about £1,750) per month. That’s right, the citizens of Switzerland may about to be guaranteed a set monthly ‘wage’ without having to do any work at all, unless they are so inclined.
Now, I had never heard of such a staggering concept before, but this article from the BBC suggests that actually the idea of a basic income for all has been around since this 16th century when Thomas Paine (I think incorrectly mentioned as Thomas More) presented it as part a utopian ideal. In ‘The Rights of Man’ Paine argues that a basic income which would provide for a child’s education and welfare as well as a comfortable state pension and funeral costs should be a considered a human right rather than charity. In a later pamphlet Paine stated:
It is wrong to say God made rich and poor. He made only male and female; and he gave them the Earth for their inheritance.
So, this brings me to the real point of this post: what would you do if your material needs were met and you were free to do whatever you wanted with your life?
Of course there is an argument that a guaranteed income will lead to laziness. Swiss economist Rudolf Strahm suggests that, “There will be no incentive for young people to learn a job or study”. I think this takes a fairly dim view of humanity. Just because people are financially comfortable it does not mean that they will drift into inherent laziness. If this were the case then no one born into wealthy families would ever be motivated to do anything, and we know that this is not the case. It is ridiculous to suggest that money is the only thing which motivates people, I like reading, drawing and blogging. None of those things pay, I’m not going to stop anytime soon because I believe they help me to develop, allow me to engage with the world and I find them interesting – but mostly because I enjoy them.
In my experience people are always in pursuit of something that will give their life purpose and meaning, whether that be raising a family, career success, a relentless pursuit of more money to add to the pile or even simply power; everyone is looking for something and financial stability will put these things within reach rather than cause them to disappear. I believe that human beings enjoy learning, being productive and developing their talents and a guaranteed income would allow them the time and financial freedom to do these things. My own personal take on this is that I would probably be in further education right now if it weren’t for the crippling debt involved.
Be an entrepreneur
A society where people have the freedom to pursue what they like and are good at can only be a good thing, could Switzerland become a nation of happy entrepreneurs? Young people are curious about the world around them and eager to learn and develop new skills, in fact, they are the driving force behind the guaranteed income in Switzerland. It would help them to study, learn a job, and be more engaged in society rather than hinder them as Strahm suggests.
Still be an employee
I often wonder if there are people out there who might be doing my dream job, but they are totally and utterly miserable and are unable to give it up because they can’t afford to. I have my suspicions that there is probably a lot of this unhappy job clinging going on at the moment, and there are a whole plethora of people waiting for the economy to recover so that opportunities might arise for jobs they might actually like. If a guaranteed income was introduced then people would have real power to choose a job that motivated them, rather than do something they hated just to pay the rent. Enno Schmidt (as quoted from the BBC article), a campaigner for basic income suggests that ‘a society in which people work only because they have to have money is “no better than slavery” ‘.
Switzerland need not worry about employees suddenly just giving up work because they don’t need the money anymore, so many people love their jobs and have spent a lot of time and effort getting good at them – they aren’t about to throw that away. Perhaps there would be more freedom of movement between jobs where you would have an opportunity to try something out for a while, with no pressure to stay if it didn’t suit you. This might sound a little bit flakey initially, but in the long term companies could be sure that their employees were there because they really were dedicated and enthusiastic, not just present under miserable duress. I really do believe that a happy workforce is a more creative and productive one. For those people in currently in wage-slave jobs who would definitely leave if they could, then perhaps mass resignations would prompt employers to reconsider working conditions.
But is it possible?
Switzerland is a very wealthy country with the fourth highest per capita income in the world at $78,881 (Wiki), so affordability is not the the central issue. Nonetheless, if Switzerland did vote for a guaranteed income then it would be a fascinating and very risky social experiment. 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,750*) per month is scarcely enough to survive on according to Mr. Schmidt, so maybe everyone will be keeping their day jobs for a while yet, although it would undoubtably make life a lot easier for the majority of people.
My two cents: UK perspective
A guaranteed liveable basic income will never be introduced in the UK, but I thought I would muse over the possible implications.
*Yeah, ok, what? £1,750 is pretty crazy amount of money from where I’m sitting here. It’s more than what I got paid at the best paying job I’ve ever had, and I think there would be plenty of adults in the UK who would be delighted with this princely sum on top of their usual wage, given the real clamp down on pay increases and level of inflation here. It certainly throws an interesting light on the notion of a living rather than a minimum wage. However, I hear through the traveller grapevine that Switzerland is a hellishly expensive place as it is a very wealthy country, and a guaranteed income is probably going to drive the prices up even further – so if you were depending on this income alone then maybe life would be possible rather than easy per se. I assume that unlike benefits in the UK the basic income would keep people above poverty levels, because otherwise this defeats the entire object. Also there is something to be said for an income which everyone is entitled to, rather than fostering a suspicious and cold society where people are criminalised because they are poor; so called ‘benefit scroungers’. It also eliminates the Dickensian idea of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor which is increasingly creeping into the UK discussion state benefits (by actually treating people like human beings, we all have a right to a certain standard of life, opportunites and education). If I was a viable adult in a career that was progressing well then I would probably hope to be earning slightly more than this in times not blighted by recession – and I would be proud to earn my own money. However, it would be nice to know that I wouldn’t fall into poverty and be branded as scum if this were not the case. So yeah, I do think the economic/personal incentive to work would still be there, just not in such an authoritative, threatening, shouty and judgemental way; all carrot and no stick – touché Switzerland.
It’s that time of year again; so I thought this would be a good time for me to reflect on life outside the bubble of academia. This post is going to be a lot more personal than what I usually talk about here, but I thought some recent graduates might appreciate hearing about my experiences just to know that – yes, things are tough at the moment, but you aren’t alone. I would love to say that these early years of my ‘real’ adult life have been filled with excitement, adventure and new opportunities, but in reality the two years since finishing university have been the most difficult of my life. I made a lot of mistakes, and undoubtedly suffered from a few circumstances beyond my control, but I’m finally starting to think that things (just about) look ok again, so what have I learnt?
- Being a millennial is hard work. Recently I’ve read a lot about my generation being vain, lazy, and narcissistic. In reality we’re not living with our parents out of laziness or lack of ambition, but because outrageously high youth unemployment is keeping us there. Guess what? I want to be self-sufficient; I want a job and maybe a family. If I’d had my own way I would have been in full time paid employment immediately after leaving university, and I never would have lived with my parents again. I want my own life, on my own terms, but unfortunately circumstances beyond my control made this quite difficult. I can’t accept the idea that a generation, for whom lengthy unpaid internships are the norm in order to have a chance of even an entry-level job, is a generation that is lazy.
- Living alone in a bedsit paid for by benefits is a terrible existence. I was absolutely determined that I could not move back in with my parents. No, never! So instead I opted to put myself under a considerable amount of torture. I claimed benefits in my university city, which I used to cover the rent on my bedsit. I needed the rent to be cheap so I was living in a bad area, bad enough that I would frequently keep a mental count of how many syringes I saw in a week. This was the least amount of money I had ever had in my life, which was saying something after 4 years of university. I walked everywhere, rationed food, electricity (not heat though, thank god – as this was included in the rent) and just about everything else needed for a reasonable quality of life. I had no TV or Internet, but on the flip side I read a prodigious amount; probably the most I had ever read in my life – which again is saying something after 4 years of an English degree. My friends steadily left the city for more friendly employment climates, and I lived an increasingly lonely life – sometimes going an entire week without speaking to anyone. But my persistence on not going back to my parent’s house lasted a full, miserable 6 months.
- Leaving your university town/friends/life is a process akin to grief, and should be dealt with accordingly. Things had been slowly unraveling since before I even finished my exams, there was a period of time where I think I cried every day. I was seeing someone who I loved very much, but who did not feel the same way about me, and even though I knew we were doomed to failure – I couldn’t let go. Unfortunately this relationship was like a metaphor for the rest of my life in Dublin, and for my university. I loved the city and the university dearly – and I felt really sick about having to give them up.
- Know when to let go, make an effort to do this ‘properly’. I cut my university out of my life first, which was pretty difficult as it is in the middle of the city. But it became too painful for me to even enter the grounds because of the memories wrapped up there (I had even lived in the ‘bubble’ on campus in my final year). Having worked so hard to get to university, and made the most of my time there, I felt like I had failed myself terribly and had not lived up to my education. When I finally did leave Dublin I made a clean break, I needed to clean myself up mentally – I didn’t want to visit the city again until I was ‘over it’. It was exactly like breaking up with a human being, with the same emotions. As soon as I did give up on the last shreds of independence, and admit I was failing badly – I moved home. I made the decision and was back within 2 weeks, it was clear what I had to do. When I got back I went straight to the doctors to ask for help, this was a good decision. When you don’t believe in yourself at all, and despair of the situation you’re in: this is a bad starting point for job-hunting, all other factors aside. It was part of admitting I wasn’t ok, that it was time to move on, and I couldn’t do that entirely on my own.
- Relationships will change. A lot of people who were my best friends at university have dissolved back into the crowd. I don’t know where they are or what they are doing. I know that some of them I will run into again at some point, some I won’t. This is ok. The people who I had the deepest relationships with, my ‘real’ friends are still there, but obviously we see each other a lot less. I feel like if I see some people once every 6 months, or even once a year I’m doing well. I think scattered friends are a part of modern life. So no, you won’t be partying with your friends every night of the week, but they are still out there – and the ones who really matter will keep in touch, even if it is sporadic and not ideal.
- People will support you. Parents, much as they are often looking at things from a different perspective. Surprise surprise, they do want you to be happy, and they know this situation is not ideal. Friends, both home and away. Some will be going through a similar thing to you and have had to move back home, others will be pursuing further education, interning, travelling (lucky!), have a scary real-world job/other. In any case it’s likely they have some problems of their own and transitions are rarely easy, no matter which direction you take. The job center (ha!) if you would like to call that support, you need money to live to though. The doctor (in my case) without a course of anti-depressants to help me out it’s likely I would still be under my duvet crying. If you need help, ask for it.
- You will be lonely. I read somewhere that anyone going through a big transition in life feels lonely, as you don’t quite seem to fit in anywhere. You aren’t a student anymore, but you aren’t a savvy young professional either – this is prime time for an identity crisis. A lot of my friends have moved away from the area I grew up, and I can’t be bothered making new friends here (I want to move away so it feels like a waste of effort). My social life has dwindled to its lowest ebb; I had more social engagements when I was 8. And that’s before I even get started on (lack of) relationships. This is probably the single biggest kicker of having to move home for me personally. In an attempt to pull some hope out of the situation I will say that: I know it won’t last forever, even though it does feel like it at times. It is good to spend time with my friends who do live here, again because I know I won’t be here forever and in all likelihood neither will they – and we’ll be back to the once every 6 months scenario.
- Your parents will not understand. By my age (24) my parents were married with full time jobs and a mortgage. Neither of my parents went to university or had the burning desire to travel which seems to plague Millennials (probably because we know a secure job and buying a house is completely out of the question, so we have to think of something else to do with our money . . . if we ever get a job).
- Job hunting is exhausting, and often a cruel joke, but you have to persevere. If you have only just graduated, then my are you going to have fun with this lot: The group interviews with candidates much older and more qualified than you, the interviewers who never get back to you, the entry level jobs which require 2 years of experience, being told you are overqualified, being told that you are underqualified, the 10 page applications with essay questions, when a job you interviewed for goes to an internal candidate, the way no one acknowledges your applications, being rejected by Primark/McDonalds/somewhere else you never really wanted to work anyway, unpaid internships, knowing your CV was screened out and not read by a human being etc etc. All of this is a total nightmare, but you have to keep playing game.
- Unexpected opportunities WILL arise, and you will probably end up on path completely different to what you imagined. Towards the end of my university career I decided that what I really wanted to go into was publishing. I wracked my brains trying to think of a route in, applied for as many publishing internships, work experience and entry level positions I could find, to no avail. As my job search went on my net got wider, and by the end I had considered every skill I possessed, every subject that interested me just a little bit – I was willing to try just about anything I was half qualified for, and plenty of things I wasn’t – if someone would just give me a chance. This was aside from a steady stream of retail/admin/hospitality job applications. I know that some people will have qualified to go into a very specific field, but if you studied something quite general like me (English) then keep an open mind, you’re only limited by your own imagination as far as job hunting is concerned.
To conclude I will say that it has been a rough road, but I am in a much better position than I was two years ago, and about to head off on a tangent I never would have considered back then. In an ideal world I would have liked to have stayed in Dublin, got a full time job there and watch things improve – but this never happened. To a new graduate I would say: The economy and the figures might be against you but do persevere, seek help when you need it – and try to recognise an opportunity when it arises, even if it is not what you imagined. Good luck!
7th November 2013: Following the responses I have been getting to this post I have written an update which can be viewed here
This is Cait Reilly. She is a 24 year old graduate (much like my good self) who took the government to court over claims that a mandatory unpaid work scheme ‘recommended’ to her by the Job Centre was unlawful. Today Ms. Reilly won her claim, with the court judge ruling that the work scheme was ‘unlawful’ as it breached laws on forced labour (not to mention minimum wage). In a speech outside the court Cait said:
“If someone gives their labour to a company, they should be paid for it. However well intentioned a workplace scheme may be, it is very dangerous to introduce compulsory unpaid labour into the UK employment market.”
It is totally inappropriate to put a graduate on a placement working in Poundland and thus preventing them from doing some degree related voluntary work in a museum. I’m not agreeing with the voluntary museum work either (that should be paid as well, I believe that all ‘big society’ volunteering and interminable internships are harming economic recovery not to mention a poor graduates chances of ever entering adult life) it’s just that the pill is not so bitter if you have arranged the work yourself and can clearly see how it will benefit your career goals.
I have long had the feeling that the Department of Work and Pensions does not know how to deal with unemployed graduates. In boom time a whole lot more of us would have had a job, perhaps to the extent that the DWP never bothered to come up with a scheme to help us – there was never any need to. Now in times of economic woe graduates end up under the same umbrella as a 16 year old school leaver, and obviously the same schemes that might help them are going to be an ill fit for us.
To help guide the DWP through their fog of incompetence and confusion I have a few suggestions for what they could do to help graduates:
- Find suitable placements for graduates. Graduates want work experience, we’re all dying for a good internship and it’s a cut throat world, the job centre could help by liaising with suitable companies to help hunt these internships down and make them more accessible. If we’re in the job centre it probably means that we’re the graduates who aren’t the well-connected ones with friends and family members sorting out our work experience, and we could do with a helping hand. Poundland won’t go down well with a student who spent four years studying economics (although the irony wouldn’t be lost on them), but they’d bite your hand off for a placement in a bank. Placements should be paid to ensure that bright but poor young things aren’t left out in the cold. If internships are unpaid then benefits should not be stopped, but rather topped up – a scheme like this exists in Ireland, and a lot of my friends ended up on this after finishing university. Currently if you are doing a full time internship, paid or not, you are not entitled to benefits as you are ‘unavailable for work’. Doesn’t exactly encourage us does it?
- Let us work for our benefits. Do you really want me to work in Poundland to gain some experience? No problem, but that will only be 9.08 hours a week (based on minimum wage of £6.19/hour up to the weekly benefit sum of £56.25)
- Make it easier to temp (this is one for all jobseeker’s, not just the graduates). I signed up with a recruitment agency or 3 that occasionally call me and give me some full time work for a few days/weeks. This makes me really happy, apart from how difficult the job centre is about temping. When my temp work is over I don’t want to go through the hassle and paperwork of starting an entirely new claim. It isn’t new; I was only gone for four days!
- Liaise with temp agencies. When I’m not temping, working in a shop or interning I’m usually trying pretty hard to find a job on my own. But times are hard, and I would appreciate some help. If a temp agency can find me a job for a week or two then it might be nice for the job centre to have a go at offering this service as well. This might suggest laziness on my part (why can’t I find my own job?) but I don’t mean it to come across that way, it just seems to me that a marriage between a temp agency and the job centre might be rather nice. A week’s work feels like a placement anyway, but with temping you actually get paid, and probably gain some experience too. Win.
- It’s the economy, stupid. Cait Reilly was unemployed because the economy is in a shambolic state no matter how you fudge the numbers, not because she had no experience on the shop floor. Young graduates are an intelligent and perceptive bunch; we worked hard to get to university and worked equally hard to get our degrees. We did not expect to be in this situation, and we certainly aren’t happy about it, so please don’t make things worse by patronising us and strangling any ambition we have left with bureaucratic red tape.
As a struggling graduate who is far from living the dream I am always interested in what hijinks other struggling graduates have been getting up to. Times are hard, but the really sharp graduates can still be an enterprising bunch and there’s always a chance that they’ve stumbled onto something lucrative.
Several weeks ago a 24 year old media production graduate’s campaign to get a job went viral after he advertised himself on a billboard in London. Adam Pacitti’s multi-platform attack from online CV to website, Twitter and real world billboard was a campaign that could have been conjured up by any worthy advertising company, and he’s clearly no stranger to the media limelight. Currently it seems that Pacitti is buried under an avalanche of enticing job offers, and I’m sure I’m not the only person curious to know what the outcome of all this will be. Adam Pacitti has slightly more money to throw into his campaign than the sign wearers of the 1930s, but it’s a sad cycle; the desperate unemployed have been here before. His campaign is simple, clever and shaping up to be successful, although it is far from original in the current economic climate. As I finished my final year at university in Dublin 26 year old Féilim Mac An Iomaire spent €2,000 renting a billboard in the city center in the hope of finding suitable employment without having to emigrate (enduringly wishful thinking as I can attest – although I’m not doing much better for being back in England).
Although I admire Pacitti’s gall (even if he is just a bit too smug), this sort of attention grabbing campaign irritates me on several levels. First of all, not everyone has vast amounts of money to squander on renting billboard space, nor should graduates have to go to such extremes to get a job. And even if I did have a princely sum saved up from my minimum wage job and/or jobseekers allowance I would be hard pushed to want to spend that on advertising. Spending in excess of £500 on advertising is simply too much, especially if you’ve already incurred the financial hardship of a number of unpaid internships and work placements. Advertising yourself in this manner is a massive gamble that personally I would be unprepared to take. However, I would be willing to emigrate which is potentially a much bigger financial risk – if I even managed to somehow scrape enough money together for that to be an option. It is a sorry state of affairs that a creative and intelligent person should be in the position to have to go to these lengths in the first place, and recession notwithstanding the government needs to address the way it deals with unemployed graduates. It is not appropriate for graduates to be pushed into unpaid placements at supermarkets (and such placements should paid at least minimum wage, if not living wage – but that’s a different post topic). This is tremendous waste of talent, and surely bad news financially for the government if graduates are unlikely to ever be earning enough to make a dent in their student loan debts.
In short, you’re unlikely to see my face on a billboard anytime soon, but for the few chancers with the courage, drive and money to burn on an advertising campaign I hope the gamble pays off – because if such extreme action won’t get you a job worthy of your education then what hope do the rest of us have?
Edit: Just realised the irony of posting this immediately after a post about gold!