New Scientist (one of the namesakes of New Escapologist!) reports that:
the world’s most robust study of universal basic income has concluded that it boosts recipients’ mental and financial well-being, as well as modestly improving employment.
That is can improve mental wellbeing should almost be a foregone conclusion, though obviously these things need to be tested (which is what has just happened in Finland) if we ever want to roll it out and base a society on it. It shouldn’t seem far removed from reality that some forms of depression and anxiety can be salved by having an economic safety net; that not being able to sell enough units or to clock enough hours could result in destitution.
What is interesting is how employment rates slightly improve under conditions of UBI. It demonstrates the hunch that generous-minded (rather than conservative) people have that humans still want to do things once their basic needs are met. No longer being economically bullied into work doesn’t necessarily lead to stagnancy.
Against all odds, working from home [has been] more successful than anyone would have predicted, with many people reporting their productivity [levels] increased during the first two months of lockdown.
“Against all odds” indeed. Bloody hell. As if the mandatory attendance of an open-plan Hell is the only conceivable way of getting things done on the road to fulfillment and is not, as the case may be, its single biggest obstruction.
The article is admirably about the quest for other ways of working though, and how offices might be redesigned in the future to be happier and more pleasant places.
It goes into the story of Bob Probst, whom I mentioned in Escape Everything! as the de-facto inventor of the office cubicle. He invented it as modular “systems furniture” and now sees the classic “veal fattening pen” as an abuse of his system.
What I wanted to mention though, is how the photograph used to illustrate the piece (a) looks sort-of like a miniature rather than a real place, or is that my imagination?; and (b) looks oddly preferable to the offices I have known even though it’s clearly supposed to illustrate the worst excesses of dystopian workplace architecture.
Weirdly, what I like about it are those privacy dividers (splash boards?) between work spaces: actual cubicle walls. We didn’t have those in our office, so we just had to dwell in each other’s personal head space all day, trying not to read each other’s minds and unable to pick our noses. It was exhausting. Yes, I might have actually preferred a cubier cube to the one I had. Weird!
Obviously, I’d rather be at home though. Or in a library. Or on a beach. Or just impaled on a spike.
Join our free mailing list for a monthly digest of this blog, extra bits and bobs, and announcements about forthcoming New Escapologist-related antics.
Last weekend’s referendum saw UBI democratically rejected in Switzerland. The people’s choice! Offered Utopia, they don’t want it.
Actually, it’s not that simple. UBI (Citizen’s Income) is a huge idea and is competing with the deeply-ingrained Protestant work ethic. We may need to destroy work worship before (or at least in tandem) with a successful UBI campaign. It’s also expensive and nobody’s quite crunched the numbers convincingly yet, despite noble efforts.
A decent summary of the current state of play in the Guardian is sympathetic to UBI but says the next round of campaigning must be stronger in its numbers.
Before it can be seriously considered for a manifesto, further cost-saving compromises – such as restrictions for citizens who already receive a state pension – may need to be considered. The trick, then, as so often in progressive politics, will be to dream big, and then proceed with care.
Meanwhile, the Economist published a largely superb piece summing up the situation.
Both supporters and critics agree that universal basic incomes would challenge the centrality of paid work to the way people live.
I read it looking for a good argument against UBI but the ones present were a bit flimsy. For instance, the concern that the world would become filled by pointless ice cream parlours as a result of a new play ethic:
Hans Peter Rubi, a 64-year-old in the small town of Olten […] was given a pension of SFr2,600 on being sent into early retirement, and became an entrepreneur. He has used his pension to start an exotic ice-cream parlour. The avocado ice cream is proving difficult to perfect, and the innovation of staying open through the winter has yet to pay off. He needs a good summer for the business to be profitable; but he can afford to fail. “My security now is that I have my basic income. It gives a security to take a basic challenge.” … In a world of universal basic incomes, it is possible that the streets would be lined with mostly empty ice-cream shops, as people used society’s largesse on projects no one really needs.
The dystopian image of streets empty of all but unfrequented ice cream parlours is a chilling one (no pun intended) and one I’ve thought of before, but I don’t think it would happen, at least not in any permanent way. Research shows that (a) most people wouldn’t stop working in normal jobs anyway and (b) after a period of too many of these leisure follies we’d realise the mistake and move onto the next big paradigm, be it idling or space travel.
So UBI was rejected in Switzerland but it really does feel like this is just the beginning of a huge international discussion. Back when we mentioned Srnicek and Williams’ book, Inventing the Future, I said “It feels like the cartridge is loaded” and I think that’s been born out. Mainstream political parties are discussing it now.
Speaking of booky-wooks, I highly recommend Utopia for Realists by UBI campaigner Rutger Bregman. His argument is mainly a pragamatic approach to UBI but he also sticks up for a 15-hour standard workweek and open borders. Weirdly, he and I got off to a bad start (I didn’t care for the first few pages because I disagree with the “nasty, brutish and short” progress argument and a naff quip about dishwashers being great) but I was soon caught up in his optimism and research-based reasoning. Good stuff.
Any old hoo, until we get UBI there’s Escapology. Break free! Run! Save yourselves!
The Guardian‘s Dear Jeremy column is about work and career-related problems. I read it every week as a way of remembering what employment is like.
I really love this week’s quandary. It is titled “I want to throttle my talkative office partner”.
I share an office with a woman who is in her late 30s. My problem is that she talks to herself – all day, every day. If she is writing an email she reads it out loud; if she is working on her PC she talks through the process. The boss won’t allow a radio and because I use the phone, I cannot wear headphones. I have tried doing the same but she just talks louder.
I have also tried saying “Sorry did you say something”, but this is obviously too subtle. I even said “Shush” once and told her to stop muttering to herself as I was trying to concentrate. She sulked for half an hour, then started again. Help – I might just throttle her soon.
Instant coffee just isn’t a draw anymore. The latest development in Gilded Cage technology is nothing less than the open bar. Boooooze!
Reader S draws our attention to a Wall Street Journal item about the lengths some firms are going to to get employees back in the harness:
some [businesses] are pulling out the stops–literally, on kegs, casks and wine bottles–in an attempt to make workplaces seem cool. Sure, executives could simply order people to return to their cubicles, and some have, but many want their workers to come back and like it.
It’s never enough to have a workforce under the thumb, is it? Wage slaves have to enjoy being stuck in a room with their better-paid overlords, puzzling over spreadsheets or just pretending to be busy while the sun shines and their kids grow up.
That means giving people what they want, or at least what bosses think they want. People like to wear comfy hoodies, right? OK! They miss their dogs when they go to work, don’t they? The canines can come!
A happy worker is a productive worker! It’s just interesting that the key to worker happiness is so rarely “higher wages” or “fewer hours” or “work from anywhere.” It’s always crap like this.
[Workers] love an afternoon cocktail, yes? Check out our new office bar!
So offices are filling with booze now. Well, why not? It’s not as if these places were conducive to concentration anyway.
And who better to emulate than our leaders in Downing Street? If they can run a whole country on the slosh, we can probably handle an inconsequential marketing concern.
You might think that, as a noted booze hound, I’d welcome the news of free drinks for office workers. But on the actual clock? It’s a recipe for disaster.
A social lubricant, booze encourages camaraderie and honesty. And being honest at work, let’s face it, will get you sacked.
This is why the offer of booze at work will neither work nor last. As soon as one leery wage slave, tongue loosened by tequila slammers, starts speaking truth to power, they’ll take it away. After all, the drunks in HR won’t do anything to help.
Alas, by that time, you’ll all be back where the bosses want you instead of being paid to wear slippers. Don’t be fooled. I’m here to help you spot a classic trap.
Booze can blur the line between professional and personal relationships in ways that make certain workers—often less-powerful ones—feel uncomfortable.
Exactly. Look, if workers have shown they can be productive at home and if, as figures suggest, they prefer to work remotely, why do we need such desperate attempts to coax them back to the office? Why are our bosses so needy about getting us back into city centres and onto industrial estates in the age of the total digital connectivity? Why does it have to be the worst of both worlds?
It’s because they (not we) pin their identities, often their whole lives, on the idea of being a manager of people. Which is pretty darn sad when you think about it.
Ultimately, these people like sitting in rush hour traffic because it makes them feel important. They like to chair meetings while idly clicking at a biro. They like to stride around the corridors like they’re in The West Wing.
They like feeling big while others in proximity feel small.
Feeling small and drunk probably isn’t a good combination, so I’d encourage anyone tempted by an office bar to stay at home. Drink at night instead, with company — not a company (aha!) — like nature intended.
“The hatred of laziness,” they write, “is deeply embedded in the history of the United States” and consequently the rest of the world:
The value of hard work and the evils of sloth are baked into our national myths and our shared value system. Thanks to the legacies of imperialism and slavery, as well as the ongoing influence that the United States exerts on the rest of the world both in media and in military force, the Laziness Lie has managed to spread its tendrils into almost every country and culture on the planet.
Strong, most excellent stuff.
They go into the etymology of the word, which conflates weakness with evil, and then into the use of “laziness” to justify slavery in America and oppression during the Industrial Revolution.
It’s the kind of thing I touched on in my “How the West Was Won (by Work)” chapter in Escape Everything! and again in The Good Life for Wage Slaves but didn’t quite have the expertise or guts to go into very deeply.
Colonial America relied on the labor of enslaved people and indentured servants. It was very important to the colonies’ wealthy and enslaving class that they find a way to motivate enslaved people to work hard, despite the fact that enslaved people had absolutely nothing to gain from it. They also needed to find ways to ideologically justify the existence of slavery because many people of the period recognized (as we do today) that it was a morally abhorrent institution.
Importantly, this history forms the basis of the Operating System on which we run today:
Decades of exposure to the Laziness Lie has had a massive effect on our public consciousness. It’s made many of us critical of other people and quick to blame the victims of economic inequality for their own deprivation. It’s made us hate our own limitations, to see our tiredness or desire for a break as signs of failure. And it has created an intense internal pressure to keep working harder and harder, with no limits and no boundaries. This ideology was created to dehumanize those whom society had failed to care for, and with each passing year, the number of people who are excluded in these ways seems to only grow.
What a wonderful essay. I am yet to read Dr. Price’s book, but I recommend it all the same.
I’m reading a compendium of nature writing by Kathleen Jamie. In a chapter of reminisces about her life in the 1970s, she writes of dropping out to work on archaeological digs with the oddballs and stoners:
The exams had been no triumph; if I’d thought about trying for university, which was not an easy process anyway, without a knowledgeable family or supportive teachers the idea was dashed anyway.
But you could sign on the dole. You could hide among the swelling numbers of genuinely unemployed, and claim a little money every week. That’s what people did: artists, diggers, mountaineers, would-be poets and musicians, anarchists and feminists. Anyone for whom the threat of a job, of conformity, felt like death.
The dole doesn’t exist in the way it did in the 1970s. We have Jobseeker’s Allowance now and Universal Credit. Doom, doom, doom. I don’t say we should bring back the dole exactly (though it would certainly be a positive step back to a happier time) but that Universal Basic Income be brought in to give the opportunity of quiet freedom to everyone who wants it. (And if you don’t want it and would prefer to work hard for loads of money, a progressive tax system would slurp your share of UBI away so you wouldn’t have to worry about it.)
Kathleen Jamie used her time on the dole (and by the way, we more commonly call it “the brew” in Scotland) to attend those archaeological digs, to experience the world a little, to meet new people, to sense the depths beneath the feet.
As well as being a well-earned break after years of unasked-for schooling, the dole could evidently be a useful airlock between life chapters in which to marshal one’s thoughts instead of foolhardily hurtling into the next thing. It grants the sort of space that is useful to anyone but essential to future writers and musicians and thinkers, people who might make a contribution greater than the gains of typical white-collar servitude.
UBI now please. Or if that’s not affordable, bring back the old-fashioned dole. If it was affordable in the 1970s, it should be affordable in the age of the iPhone.
Reader Antonia draws our attention to this news item in the Guardian:
Welcome to cube city. Xu Weiping, a Chinese multimillionaire, has a vision for the future of office work in the post-Covid-19 pandemic world: thousands of office pods where each person works in their own self-contained 3m x 3m cube.
Xu reckons the coronavirus pandemic will have such a fundamental impact on the way people work that he is converting 20 newly constructed office buildings in east London into 2,000 of the individual cube offices.
Still, as I hinted before, three-metre by three-metre is a far bigger cube than I ever had when I worked in an office. I started out with a desk that was perhaps 1.5m wide; I would not have been able to touch the shoulder of a co-worker but we would have been able to touch fingertips with ease. Management then moved us to a tighter working area in which the desktop was a meter wide at most (perhaps 85cm) and we would have been able to touch each other’s shoulders with ease. So in a way, Cube City would have been preferable to Concrete Island (the name I give to my old workplace in The Good Life for Wage Slaves).
For all the ingenuity and spacial generosity of Xu Weiping’s human battery farm, the thought remains: why bother? Why go to the effort to put shoes on and squelch yourself onto a packed Tube carriage to reach a place in the isolated docklands that boasts such fabulous features as “a kettle, fridge, microwave, videoscreen and fold-down bed as well as a chair and desk.” I mean, just stay at home. Got distracting kids or dogs or something? Even some really swanky noise-cancelling headphones won’t set you back as much as cube tenancy and a commuter pass.
I’m writing this from our dining table in case you’re wondering. I’m wearing slippers. Freak Zone plays quietly on the radio while my partner draws in pencils on her £20 LED drawing board. It’s lovely.
The idea that office life is over is almost certainly overdone. Not everyone loves typing away on the sofa day after day, panicking about being out of the corporate loop.
Bloody hell. Imagine “panicking about being out of the corporate loop.” Excuse me while I fill a whole bucket with sick.
But for those lucky enough to have the choice to work from home, the collective near-death experience we’ve endured as a nation may be prompting a re-evaluation of what matters. Commuter dads [for instance] who once rarely saw their children awake have got used to the casual intimacy of being around them all day long.
Nope. Sorry. I’m going to need another bucket. Not for the sentiment (which I agree with) but for the phrase, “commuter dads.”
Don’t worry, things improve. The columnist asks if office life will soon be a thing of the pre-pandemic past. Spoiler: it won’t be, but some Escapologist-pleasing changes might yet be afoot.
The piece goes on to describe some of the post-lockdown measures currently being proposed to revolutionise working practices in light of the need for social distancing. Among them are a wonky but surely beneficial “four days on, ten days off” modality and our old friend, the Four-Day Week.
Personally, I’d settle for the sort of open-ended furlough for workers (and non-workers) of all stripes in the form of UBI. Eh, readers?
I’ve been reading an humongous tome of autobiographical essays by “Designated Bad Seed” of science fiction, Harlan Ellison. I love his alive, cantankerous writing so much, and these essays have reconnected me with a deep well of pluck I’m sorry to say I’d forgotten about. Thank you, Uncle Harlan, wherever you are.
What I’d like to tell you about today, my fellow Escapologists, is a particular essay from this book in which Ellison describes working a drudge job for Capitol Records in 1953. He describes a first day of anxiously working quickly, fearing being judged not good enough by “the Demon God of Industry”, and then being told to slow down by a co-worker because his pedal-to-the-metal processing power makes the others look bad.
He talks to a long-serving Wage Slave, “a mouse of a creature” who has been filing bills of lading for eleven years, against his dream to “just go with the wind.”
The terror that froze my soul cannot be put into words. […This man was] set irrevocably on a cubicled routine of pointless chores making money for Gods on far mountaintops… and I saw what my future would be if I left my life in the hands of those prepared only to dole out thirty-six dollars a week for another human being’s existence.
Sensing a future echo in utero, Ellison’s had enough:
I grabbed up that sack of bills, leaped out of my chair, sending it crashing to the floor, and with all my strength and lungpower flung them into the air, screaming “FUCK IT!” Amid the bills-of-lading snowstorm, I fled shrieking from that madhouse of boredom and dead dreams on West 57th Street, never to return.
As far as I know, to this day, Capitol Records has an unclaimed check for one-half day’s work, in the name of Harlan Ellison.
Hah! Great isn’t it? I really just wanted to share this inspirational moment with you–you fine people with eyes on the door–but I also recommend The Harlan Ellison Hornbook more generally to anyone with low blood pressure.