Why people still choose to work, even if they don't have to

Imagine, for one glorious second, that you didn't have to work for money any longer. All your basic bills are covered.

Would you still work at all? Would it be in the same job? And would you still do it full-time?

For many in executive positions, the answer to all those questions is apparently a big fat, unequivocal yes.

It's a no-brainer for Joseph Russell, Co-founder of DreamWalk Apps in Melbourne: "Absolutely I'd keep working. My job is much more than just a paycheck. It gives me a sense of purpose and satisfaction."

The Universal Basic Income idea

Buzz around the potential of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has led to more people asking these questions. UBI would pay all citizens a regular sum of money, irrespective of their financial situation.

Dr Elise Klein, UBI researcher at the University of Melbourne explains: "It's a very viable solution to increasing automation, precarious labour and the gig economy. The promise of full-time work for everybody is changing. It'd provide an economic floor so people don't fall through."

Although predominantly aimed at aiding lower income-earners, the concept has the potential to revolutionise how we see ourselves and our jobs.

Perhaps counterintuitively, UBI could actually lead to more productivity. "It's a misconception that people just wouldn't work." Dr Klein says. "Work is a social institution just as much as an economic one. Means-tested welfare sometimes dis-incentivises people getting extra work; UBI would encourage people to 'top up' by still working. It could open up exciting conversations about what we define as work."

Finally, a decent wage for artists

Jacob Aldridge from Fortitude Valley, QLD, says he realised he'll "never retire in the traditional sense" when, just six weeks into a six month round-the-world trip with his wife, he returned to working on a business idea. He believes UBI would improve both his work as Director of Strategy, and that of his creative friends.


"I'd likely take much higher-risk business ideas where failure isn't a concern thanks to UBI. I can't think of a single friend who'd react by becoming lazy. From the artists I know who are cramming their craft into limited weekend time, to the wantrepreneurs aspiring to add more value to the world through business, a fully-funded UBI would spark a creative boom among my peers."

"The months seemed to disappear"

Sydney's Creel Price, 46, can testify from personal experience that, as enticing life without work may sound, the shine soon fades.

Having sold his jointly-owned business, Blueprint Management Group, for $109 million in 2008, he had the freedom to do anything he liked: "Initially I filled my time with hobbies, like playing golf with my 70-year-old chairman and his friends. I was living the 'retired life' when I still had the majority of my life ahead of me. I quickly discovered recreation isn't a full-time role if you want to leave a legacy and gain personal fulfillment. The months seemed to disappear and I could feel my productivity drop."

He grew restless and spent 12 months travelling the world, but even that had a shelf-life: "The adrenalin rush of my travels fulfilled me for a time, but ultimately it was hard to make a difference without a full-time commitment to any one initiative. That's why I came back to Australia to co-found Investible so I could engage deeply in social causes."

Adrenaline vs purpose

For those in high-paced jobs, you might expect adrenaline to be what they'd miss most. But that's not the case for Joseph Russell: "It's not the feeling of being busy I'd miss. It'd more likely be the sense of purpose and achievement. I do what I do because I'm good at it and I thrive off the recognition and validation that comes from that."

Jacob Aldridge agrees: "My vision board includes a picture of a sloth, and that's exactly my preferred pace. I'd also be more social, because I feel without the 9-to-5 imperative society would re-structure around more community and family spaces, making it easier for me to spend time with those I love."

Redefining work

The definition of work itself could change under a UBI. Dr Klein says: "C roles that don't always find market value: artists, those in the environmental or care work space and the immense unpaid labour of parents bringing up kids. They can sit outside of what's considered formal work. UBI might enable more people to find expression in those pursuits. It could also re-define masculinity and notions of domestic roles and care-giving, making men more comfortable taking on those roles."

Redifining yourself  

One of the most profound questions a UBI proposes is - how far are you allowing your job to define you? How far is your identity currently shaped by play, hobbies, extra curricular activities and caring responsibilities?

For Joseph Russell, it's a strange thought: "My public identity is largely shaped by my job. I'm the guy with the app company who also makes films. I'm not sure who I'd be without those claims to fame. Maybe I'd just be Joe, the loving husband and father. I'd be happy enough with that identity too - I guess."