Wouldn’t it be great not to have to worry about money? No need to get up and go to a job, instead you could just enjoy yourself and really live?
This fantasy has plenty of appeal, and, no doubt, just about everyone entertains this line of thinking from time to time when the alarm goes off too early on Monday morning. Yet after a cup of coffee, most people recognize that working is actually an important part of living—not a distraction from it—and idleness would feel like a plague if indulged for too long.
But maybe not: CNN Money recently reported on how Y Combinator, a Silicon-valley based organization that provides seed funding and other assistance to entrepreneurs, is planning a study to see how people respond to being freed from the necessity of earning an income. Y Combinator CEO Sam Altman believes that, as technology eradicates the need for many jobs, the United States will embrace some system that guarantees everyone a basic income, making this research particularly important. He plans to fund an experiment that will provide an array of people from different backgrounds with a basic income to see how they respond to this new reality.
As Altman put it:
“They’ll have total freedom to do whatever they want,” he said. “They have basic income, so if they stop liking their job, they wouldn’t have to keep going to work. They wouldn’t be working because they had to pay rent. What do people do once they have that freedom?”
This research will undoubtedly yield some interesting results, and, most likely, will reveal great differences in how people respond to these new circumstances. Talented and highly motivated individuals may be even more economically productive, as well as lead rich, personally fulfilling lives, absent the need to work to pay the bills. Many others, however, may not know what to do with themselves without the structure and urgency of having to work in order to live.
Previous studies have found that many seem especially ill suited to idleness and will slip into inactivity when lacking a reason to keep busy. A study conducted by professors at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, for example, explored the relationship between busyness and happiness through a series of experiments, concluding: “We demonstrated that people choose to be idle if they do not have reason to be busy, but that even a specious justification can prompt them to seek busyness. In addition, people are happier when busy than when idle, even if busyness is forced upon them.”
This study is consistent with the research of AEI’s Arthur Brooks, whose book, The Conservative Heart, demonstrates that having a purpose and being able to contribute to society through productive work and employment is critical for individual fulfillment. Brooks writes:
Work gives people something welfare never can. It’s a sense of self-worth and mastery, the feeling that we are in control of our lives. This is a source of abiding joy…. Studies show that people who receive public support are twice as likely as those not receiving public support to report feeling worthless. “Very happy” people work more hours each week than those who are “pretty happy,” who in turn work more hours than those who are “not too happy.”
This helps explain why those who are unemployed suffer from higher rates of depression, and are more likely to feel isolated and pessimistic about the future.
These findings–the importance of feeling useful and of earned achievement to happiness and fulfillment—have implications for public policy. There may be many good reasons to move toward a “basic income” system that provides all individuals sufficient funds to provide for necessities, rather than a traditional safety net system. Our current patchwork of welfare programs distort markets, as well as people’s incentives, creating enormous duplication, waste, and useless bureaucracy and red tape. A streamlined income support system may do a better job at providing for people in need while inflicting far less economic damage.
That’s the reason to consider an income support system—not because it will eradicate the need to work and free people from a life of drudgery. Most people enjoy their jobs, which provide a social network and sense of purpose, as well as a source of income. In fact, many of us may be surprised to find that true drudgery isn’t the 9-to-5 slog, but having a yawning space of hours and days with nothing productive with which to fill them.