The Future of Not Working?

The title of a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye: “The Future of Not Working.” Annie Lowrey describes in detail a new, tech-inspired effort to fight poverty. GiveDirectly uses mobile phones to provide some villagers living in Kenya with a modest, guaranteed income. This test of so-called “universal income” is not without it problems, according to Lowrey, but it seems to have an overall positive impact on the the lives of those who struggle with extreme poverty.

I must admit that the title of this article did not strike me positively. Is the point of universal income to make it so that people do not have to work. Is it assumed that those who receive funds from GiveDirectly will simply live off this “free” income? Are we to believe that people do not have an inherent desire, even a need to work?

I’m glad to report that Lowrey’s title was not supported by the substance of the article. In fact, she related several examples of people who took what they received from GiveDirectly and invested it in business ventures. For example, consider the case of Fredrick Omondi Auma, who:

had been impoverished, drinking too much, abandoned by his wife and living in a mud hut when GiveDirectly knocked on his door. He used his money to buy a motorbike to give taxi rides. He also started a small business, selling soap, salt and paraffin in a local town center; he bought two cows, one of which had given birth; and he opened a barbershop in the coastal city Mombasa.

While some villagers focused mainly on meeting personal and household needs,

Many more made plans that were entrepreneurial. Two widowed sister-wives, Margaret Aloma Abagi and Mary Abonyo Abagi, told me they planned to pool their funds together to start a small bank with some friends. Charles Omari Ager, a houseboy for the sister-wives, had his phone turned off and wrapped in a plastic bag in his pocket when the first text came in. He was driving the widows’ goats and cattle from one dried-out, bramble-filled meadow to another when he happened upon an aid worker, who prompted him to pull out his phone, turn it on and wait. The text was there. The money was there. “I’m happy! I’m happy! I’m happy!” he said. He bought himself a goat that day.

So, this article is not really about “the future of not working.” Rather, it is more about how, when given the opportunity in the form of modest funding, most people seek a “future of working.” They are living examples of the fact that we were created to work, and that our lives will be fulfilled only when we invest them in work that matters.