Recent trends in the North American labour market have revealed a major shift toward an increase in flexibility, otherwise known as precariousness. This development presents new challenges to western governments, and it is unclear that existing approaches hold viable solutions. Switzerland provides one example of how these emerging challenges might be addressed. The country will soon vote on a proposal to implement a basic income for all citizens.
The idea of a basic income is not new, nor is it unique to Switzerland, though it might strike many audiences as an extreme measure. Essentially, under such a system, every citizen is granted a small income in order to relieve them from the vagaries of the job market. To some, this might sound like an expansion of welfare, and in some respects that is a fair assessment, but basic income reconceptualises welfare, transforming it from a poverty alleviation measure into a more integral component of the economy as a whole.
Critics, not just including business interests, argue that it could serve as a disincentive for work by making unemployment less distressing. While such a system likely would increase the bargaining power of labour by making unemployment less devastating, proposed basic incomes are usually modest. Defenders of basic income argue that it simply affords workers an enhanced degree of the “flexibility” that employers so often advocate for themselves. In other words, they believe labour market flexibility should be less of a one-way street. Nonetheless, flexibility is to some extent a zero-sum game and any basic income measures will likely be met with staunch opposition.
Will we see a basic income system in North America in the near future? Probably not. Switzerland’s system of direct democracy provides an avenue through which unorthodox measures can quickly garner serious public attention. Even with these advantages, it remains to be seen how successful the proposal will be. Both political culture and political structure make it unlikely that North American governments will seriously pursue any similar measures.
Nevertheless, the labour market is increasingly defined by part-time work, temporary employment, and sporadic periods of unemployment for a broad swath of the working population. A basic income program might come to be regarded, beyond the confines of the far left, as a viable source of stability and a means of limiting the social disruptions that accompany a volatile or foreboding job market.
Such disruptions have effects extending far beyond the economic sphere. Politics can become more volatile as people feel less economically secure, the already prevalent scapegoating of immigrants or minority groups can become intensified, and isolationist sentiments can gain credence. It does not require a great imagination to envision the proliferation of individual financial insecurity translating into increased societal instability.
If not basic income, the increased flexibility of the labour market in the world’s wealthiest economies invites innovative policy measures that go beyond the drive for austerity that has defined the past few years. If more people are forced to contend with less stability in their working lives than they enjoyed in previous eras, new solutions will become integral, both to successful politics as well as effective polices.