Photo: Stefan Bohrer/Flickr

Technological advancements are poised to make many jobs obsolete. Is universal basic income the answer?

In fewer than 40 years machines may automate half of all tasks people are currently paid to do. Many of these activities—from factory work to farming—will be manual, but in a January report by the McKinsey Global Institute, researchers stress that both low- and high-skill occupations are at risk. Which leaves a looming question: How will we make enough money to survive?

The answer may be a form of social security called universal basic income (UBI), in which citizens receive periodic payments from a public or private institution, like the government or a nonprofit group. A true basic income is unconditional. Recipients are free to supplement it with other income, and they can use the cash however they wish.

How would no-strings-attached payments affect society? Berlin-based nonprofit Mein Grundeinkommen (My Basic Income) has been conducting an experiment over the last few years to explore that question, providing a few lucky lottery winners with €1,000 ($1,200) each month for a year. More than 620,000 people have entered the drawing, and 101 have been chosen so far to receive the monthly stipend. The Mein Grundeinkommen team wants to find out how people from various demographics will choose to live with a little extra financial support.

Winners range from school children to homeless people. An 11-year-old named Robin Zimmer won the lottery in 2014 and decided to invest in books, guitar lessons and a new bow. Robin’s mother Olga says the money helped her family feel more engaged in society.

“We are increasingly interested in socio-political matters,” she says through a translator, “and even our children are much more open and interested in the environment and their fellow human beings. [This is] a completely unexpected but very pleasant change.”

Eleven-year-old Robin won the basic income. His mom, Olga, said the money made the family more interested in "socio-political matters." Mein Grundeinkommen e.V.

Fifty-three-year-old Astrid Lobreyer won the lottery near the end of 2015 and chose to throw a big Christmas party for family and friends, something she couldn’t have previously afforded.

“When I had the pressure of not having enough money I was tired and a bit depressed,” she says. “I didn’t have the energy for any other work. This money inspired me to work more. I’ve actually worked more since then.”

In the new year, Lobreyer used her funds to improve her health, focus on a more sustainable lifestyle and invest in new skills. She has since been trained in a form of physical therapy called the Alexander Technique and volunteers as a funeral speaker.

One of the most impressive aspects of the experiment is that it is strictly financed through crowdfunding. Some 40,000 donors have offered as little as a dollar and as much as $14,000 to support total strangers.

“An important part about the project is that there are actually people willing to give money to someone else free of conditions,” says Mein Grundeinkommen founder Michael Bohmeyer. “That’s the really great thing about it. Not just that people are receiving the money, but that others are willing to pay and let go of control over other people.”

Mein Grundeinkommen isn’t the first or only basic income-inspired pilot experiment. In June 2016, Switzerland voted on a referendum that would have provided its citizens with 2,500 Swiss Francs (around $2,600) each month, regardless of their personal situation or employment status. More than 75 percent of Swiss voters voted no.

Finland meanwhile is conducting a basic income experiment focused solely on the unemployed. Of the roughly 177,000 unemployed Finns, 2,000 will receive €560 (nearly $670) each month, and both those receiving the payments and those who don’t will be loosely monitored during and after the two-year experiment to study how the money impacts their lives and employment status.

“We will check what [the 2,000 selected citizens] are doing with their basic income and then see how the other group, who have a similar profile and who are not getting the income, are doing and behaving,” says Marjukka Turunen, head of the legal unit at Finland’s social insurance agency, Kela.


The team behind the Mein Grundeinkommen experiment with founder Michael Bohmeyer seated front right. Mein Grundeinkommen e.V.

The concept of universal basic income may sound utopian, but it isn’t new. In the 1960s and ’70s politicians from as far afield as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter proposed legislation inspired by guaranteed income. Researchers conducted a handful of experiments in the United States in the decades that followed, but failed to show that a financial safety net significantly improved the wellbeing of participants.

More recently, the idea of a basic income has been supported by tech giants like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who say its level of financial security is vital for the future of society. Still, the concept has many critics, as demonstrated by the Swiss referendum. Naysayers suggest that unconditional payments would result in a lack of incentive for recipients and would encourage people to lounge around rather than search for work.

On the contrary, Lobreyer says the money made her feel more motivated, as it relieved her financial pressure, allowing her to diversify her work, sleep better and volunteer.

“This money inspired me to work more,” she says. “And I wanted to feel like I could give something back. Not only to take [the money] and disappear, but to do something good with it.”

Some experts insist that the Mein Grundeinkommen initiative be distinguished from a basic income, since it lacks a few assurances that a true basic income would provide. For example, the German project has a time constraint, which will likely impact a recipient’s use of her own time and money.

Bohmeyer agrees and notes that, although Mein Grundeinkommen is an “experiment,” it’s not an academic study, which would require quantitative or qualitative data to be rigorously analyzed and interpreted. “It’s more like an experiment in the meaning of ‘experience,’” Bohmeyer says.

Mein Grundeinkommen will continue awarding lottery winners as long as it receives funds from donors. The project recently raised enough money for a 106th recipient. But Bohmeyer hopes to someday support a true basic income experiment and, through the generosity of others, facilitate a more financially secure society, one citizen at a time.