The romanticised notion of passive income typically conjures up picturesque images of digital nomads lounging on immaculate beaches, their bank accounts growing with the profits from their latest online course on becoming a digital nomad.
Dividends from investments in blue-chip stocks and rent checks from inherited real estate silently stack up, epitomising forms of wealth accumulation that, though seemingly benign, perpetuate and even exacerbate the socioeconomic divides within our society.
These traditional images of passive income, wrapped in the glossy veneer of leisure and financial independence, sell the dream of earning without needing work.
The core idea of passive income — that humans were not designed to spend all our waking hours in an office, longing for the sweet relief of $5 shots on a Friday night — is valuable.
The pursuit of passive income is fundamentally about the kind of society we aspire to cultivate. It’s about our values regarding work, leisure, creativity, and community and our conversations with our humanity.
The passive income movement was an awakening of the spirit of self, where workers began to question the grind of meaningless, bullshit jobs and explore the groundbreaking notion that life is, in fact, meant to be lived. As author Sam Harris said, “In a world of true abundance, you shouldn’t have to work to justify your life.”
The problem is that the vast majority of passive income streams, while lucrative for the privileged few, remain elusive for the majority, inadvertently widening the fissures in our social fabric and perpetuating a cycle of inequality. Rental income, one of the most cited forms of passive wealth, necessitates property ownership, often out of reach for the economically disadvantaged. Dividends require a substantial initial capital investment, excluding those not already endowed with wealth. Even royalties, which seem more attainable, are contingent on one’s ability to produce creative or intellectual property, a feat that not all can achieve.
Far from being an egalitarian solution, these traditional pathways to passive income only deepen the divide between the haves and have-nots, underscoring the systemic barriers that prevent wealth distribution from being more equitable.
There is a paradigm of passive income that dares to transcend individual enrichment, aspiring instead to societal metamorphosis: a Universal Basic Income, where every individual receives a stipend unfettered by employment status or means testing.
It’s a notion steeped in history yet acutely relevant in our age of relentless automation and burgeoning inequality. UBI is a vision of liberation — a society unshackled from the drudgery of survival, where human creativity and entrepreneurial spirit flourish, mental health is cherished, and families are nurtured in an environment of balance and well-being.
This concept is not a novelty; it finds its roots in the ideas of thinkers like Thomas Paine and has been debated among economists and social theorists for decades. The rise of automation and the consequent displacement of workers have only added urgency to these discussions, positioning UBI as a potential remedy to the growing chasm of inequality. In the words of Stephen Hawking, “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”
Proponents of UBI — and I count myself among them — argue that it offers a safety net that enables individuals to pursue education, start businesses, or engage in creative endeavours without the fear of financial ruin, creating a more innovative, entrepreneurial, and dynamic society. By decoupling survival from employment, UBI could lead to a renaissance in volunteerism and community service, as individuals are liberated from the constraints of working solely for subsistence.
A UBI is not a panacea. It doesn’t directly address disparities in wealth accumulation or access to opportunities. It doesn’t counteract the systemic issues that prevent equal access to education, healthcare, or the justice system. Without complementary reforms in these areas, UBI risks being a superficial bandage on the deep wounds of societal inequality. But it’s a start. And it’s a start that focuses on the same core problem that passive income seeks to address: that we have become a wealth/work supremacist society and that it is slowly and surely killing the human spirit.
Where UBI and passive income diverge is in the puritanical notion of earned desserts. Passive income is deemed acceptable, even enviable, because at some point in the past, labour, capital, or ingenuity was expended to create a product or service that continues to generate revenue over time. It’s tied to the traditional work ethos, where rewards are seen as justly deserved due to prior effort or investment. Passive income, in this light, is the fruit of one’s past labours or smart investments, legitimising its continual harvest.
Universal Basic Income challenges this deeply ingrained belief. It posits that the right to a basic level of financial security should not be contingent on past endeavours or the possession of capital. UBI is grounded in the principle of shared prosperity and the intrinsic value of each individual, irrespective of their economic contribution. It proposes a societal shift from the meritocratic narrative, where financial rewards are solely the result of personal merit, to a more inclusive framework that recognises the collective role in creating the conditions allowing wealth generation.
Detractors of Universal Basic Income claim that a guaranteed income might erode the will to work. They envision a society lulled into complacency, where financial literacy and the ethic of hard work are diminished. These concerns stem from a pessimistic view of human motivation and a misreading of economic behaviour. The empirical evidence gathered from various UBI pilot programs paints a different picture. Experiments in Finland and Canada have shown that providing a basic income does not significantly diminish people’s desire to work. Instead, it affords them the flexibility to pursue work that is meaningful and suited to their skills rather than being trapped in the cycle of low-paying or unsatisfying jobs.
The discourse surrounding passive income and Universal Basic Income is a microcosm of more significant existential questions. It’s about how we conceive the future of our society and the role of the individual within it. The romanticised images of passive income, with their allure of financial independence and leisure, are symptomatic of our collective yearning for a life beyond the relentless grind, where work is a choice, not a necessity for survival. But the traditional paths to achieving this dream are fraught with inequities, serving to widen the chasm between the privileged and the underprivileged.
Universal Basic Income, then, emerges not just as an economic policy but as a bold reimagining of societal values. It’s an assertion that in a world of unprecedented wealth, the means to a dignified existence should be a fundamental right, not a privilege. It’s an acknowledgement that human worth transcends economic output and that in the face of automation and the changing nature of work, our definitions of labour, leisure, and the distribution of wealth must evolve.
Our choices about automation, artificial intelligence and human welfare in the next 5 years will reverberate through generations. We can cling to the traditional narratives of active vs passive income, with their inherent biases and inequities, or we can embrace the radical vision of Universal Basic Income, promising a more equitable and humane society.
Our future calls on us to answer a question as old as civilisation: What kind of world do we want to live in?
Our answer will be the choice between perpetuating a status quo that glorifies wealth accumulation and individual achievement or forging a new path prioritising collective well-being and shared prosperity.
This choice represents the essence of our humanity, the reflection of our values, and the blueprint for the society we want to create.