U.N. Secretary General Urges Nations to Consider Universal Basic Income

A plan for when the robots take all the jobs.

Steve Johnson

Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, gave supporters of universal basic income a reason to toast in his address to the general debate of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly of the U.N. on September 25, 2018.

“The very nature of work will change,” said Guterres. “Governments may have to consider stronger safety nets and eventually, universal basic income.”

Guterres has a point. As automation eliminates jobs like data entry workers and postal clerks — 52 percent of tasks are projected to be replaced by robots by 2025 — and a long-running concern is how displaced workers will respond to mass unemployment. New technologies bring new jobs with them, but learning new skills can be both costly and time consuming. It’s also hard to anticipate how we should be training people for new careers that don’t exist yet.

It’s against this backdrop of rising income inequality and the rise in automation that the idea of universal basic income has gained steam. It’s an alluringly simple idea: To prevent poverty and compensate for wage stagnation, simply give people money. But it has also remained controversial, with the star complaint that free money simply turns the unemployed into free-loaders. But researchers say that isn’t necessarily the case, as the Alaska Permanent Fund, a small-scale implementation of universal basic income, has shown and that UBI has actually boosted local economies.

Gini coefficients -- a measure of the gap between haves and have-nots -- are on the rise. 

Could We Really See a UBI?

Guterres’ support also comes at the tail end of Finland’s two-year experiment in providing UBI. The project, kicked off in January 2017 and ending in January 2019, randomly selected 2,000 unemployed participants to receive €560 (Approximately $650) a month. Critics argue that Finland botched the execution, as new unemployment policies ran counter to the no-strings-attached idea of UBI. Researchers also complained that the scale of the project was too small.

But despite the stigma surround UBI and Finland’s decision not to continue the project, nations seem to be coming around to the idea. 50+1 Strategies and David Binder Research reported a plurality of support for universal basic income in the US in a 2016 survey. Across the ocean, the European Social Survey of 2016-2017 shows support ranging from 33.9 percent to 80.4 percent.

Guterres joins varied political company in his support of UBI, such as Mark Zuckerberg and the Adam Smith Institute.

Guterres also urged global leaders to be more ambitious and take action against climate change. Although it’s a bit late to implement his value of prevention, he remains optimistic about the growth of the green economy, anticipating the green industry adding 26 billion dollars to the global economy by 2030 and 24 million new jobs.

“Despite the gales and confusion in our world, I see winds of hope blowing around the globe.” Guterres told world leaders.

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