What would you do with a guaranteed income and no financial obligations? If a benefactor granted you an adequate living wage, how would you spend your life? Would you continue doing exactly what you do now, or would you drastically change your behaviors? Volunteer for causes close to your heart? Sit in a lounge chair eating bon-bons and watching TV? Devote your time to family-intensive matters? Tackle that exciting challenge you never had the time or leisure to attempt?
You may have a chance to find out.
This is no longer an academic theoretical question, because someone actually wants to offer money for nothing, just as an experiment. Some managers may sarcastically comment that they already pay people to do nothing, but this is a serious proposition.
The president of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, made this announcement recently:
We’d like to fund a study on basic income—i.e., giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached. I’ve been intrigued by the idea for a while, and although there’s been a lot of discussion, there’s fairly little data about how it would work.
It’s true that we have systems in place to give people resources, but the bureaucracy and qualification requirements make it a very imperfect approximation of what most people mean when talking about a basic income. We have some examples of something close to a basic income in other countries, but we’d like to see how it would work in the US.
This is an exciting opportunity to discover if lessons of the past work in the present or are useful for the future. A guaranteed basic income is not a modern idea but actually a retroactive return to the age of privilege. In bygone ages, it was generally accepted that the better class of people did not work for a living but instead “received an income.” Gentlemen did not soil their hands with brute labor or toil behind desks performing commercial tasks directed by others; no, they simply lived on the income from their property holdings. In return, they lived well and benefited society by dabbling in the liberal arts. They consumed by free choice rather than produced from obligation.
Sponsoring the finer aspects of humanity was once considered the role and responsibility of the upper classes. The original “Idea of a University” came from an 1852 seminal book by that name advocating a cirriculum embracing the totality of the liberal arts. Behind it was the theory that basic education should exist in order to learn how to live well. Trade schools (like medical or engineering schools) existed for any advanced specialized practical knowledge required to earn money. But the mercantile class who engaged in commerce were generally disdained as inferior money-grubbers. The expectation that people should be obliged to earn their livings applied to commoners and was not something for the gentry or ruling class. Gentlemen and ladies read, discussed and explored the classics, applying that background to enrich and refine society via music, theatre, philosophy and other forms of art.
Such leisurely and self-indulgent attitudes seem anachronistic and out of place in the modern world. Perhaps they had value; but we won't know without realistic practical research. The sponsor is recruiting for a scientist to design and conduct the research project over a five-year period. Interested?
The results of the study should be fascinating. Actual controlled experimental findings in real-life settings will have important implications for compensation people. When money has been taken off the table as a motivator, what will people choose to do? Academic theories drawn from student behaviors don't really explain why people work for a living. Selected case examples drawn from isolated exceptional situations in other cultures also fail to reflect normal American work environments. Valid patterns might be discovered by careful study of what actually happens when external pressures to work for a living are absent.
What do you think?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent compensation advisor with extensive total rewards experience, specializing in job evaluation, market pricing and pay budget distribution. After corporate HR jobs in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing, he consulted at retail, government, energy, IT, tax-exempt and other industries throughout North America before becoming Senior Associate of pay survey software publisher ERI until returning to consulting in 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook) and speaker, Jim gave expert witness testimony in many reasonable executive compensation cases both for and against the Internal Revenue Service and also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
Creative Commons Image, "Lazy Harbor Days" by Karen