Thaïs Bendixen had a problem. Like many other millennials, the 25-year-old master’s student from Portugal “didn’t have any [financial] help from her parents” and had to balance the need to feed her brain with the need to put food on the table. “I knew I didn’t want to be in front of a computer—I wanted to be outside doing something to help the environment,” Bendixen says, explaining how difficult she found it to work and study at the same time.
Bendixen belongs to a generation that changes jobs more frequently than any other, a trend that annually costs the U.S. $30.5 billion, according to a 2016 Gallup report. One reason—the same report suggests—is their low work engagement, as only 29% of millennials claimed to feel “emotionally and behaviorally” connected to their job. But separate research says work itself isn’t the problem, and in fact, many workers—particularly millennials—would give up higher pay to take a job that they love or find meaningful. So what happens when workers like Bendixen have a baseline of economic freedom to do just that? An experiment with a kind of basic income in Germany is providing some interesting answers.
The rough premise of a basic income involves distributing small cash stipends to people, with no restrictions on how it can be spent. While some economists dismiss UBI as inefficient and expensive, evidence shows it has real benefits. Recent experiments—in places as far-flung as Stockton, California, and Kenya—tout BI as a way to expand affordable housing, reduce depression, and even be an effective way to deliver slavery reparations. And now, according to Mein Grundeinkommen (“My Basic Income”), a Berlin-based nonprofit that independently crowdfunds BI payments, it’s also helping people like Bendixen find freedom to enjoy work, and everything in between.
The idea started five years ago when Michael Bohmeyer, then a 29-year-old web developer, crowdfunded his own salary. In an interview with The Local, Bohmeyer said that year helped him improve his health, read more often, join nonprofit projects, and recognize the importance of “time over money.” So, rather than wait on a politically unmotivated Germany to do it, Bohmeyer launched an independent basic income campaign to help others recognize their “great potential.”
Since then, more than 150,000 individuals have donated to Mein Grundeinkommen’s online fund—which will have awarded nearly 500 basic incomes by the end of 2019. The process works like a raffle; any person anywhere in the world, for no fee at all, can register to receive €1,000 (about $1,100) per month for a year.
“It’s kind of a reset button for people in the middle of their life,” says Steven Strehl, Mein Grundeinkommen’s platform development associate. “Most people continue to work, but when they do, they can take a step back, look at themselves, and analyze what’s going on.”
That was the case for Bendixen, who received her first basic income in August and calls that money her “security net.” “If I didn’t have the basic income, I would have to take the first job that came to me,” she says. “Now, I can reject offers I’m not interested in and try to do what I love.”
Of course, not everyone is as lucky as Bendixen. Each month, about 600,000 people enter the Mein Grundeinkommen raffle, and of them, typically 20 names are drawn. Yet a small but thorough voluntary survey of 43 Mein Grundeinkommen winners shows Bendixen is far from alone in feeling far-ranging effects from the basic income.
About half (47%) say the basic income has helped them reimagine their work as a contribution to society, and even greater majorities say it’s made them less anxious (80%) and more energetic (81%), courageous (80%), and curious (60%). Though only four surveyed winners either changed or quit their jobs, more than half say that the basic income allowed them to continue their education, and 35% say they’ve since become more “motivated” at work.
Tonći Vidović, another winner, is among the re-“motivated.” As a 48-year-old freelance software developer living in Bournemouth, England, he says he’s never short of work, but sometimes has the opposite problem. “I’m in this business because I enjoy doing it, but the reason I haven’t been enjoying it is because I have this pressure to keep my family alive.”
Now, Vidović says, he’s rediscovered joy in his job. “I don’t have to jump on every single call just to make ends meet, and there’s still enough money leftover to have a life and pay the bills.” And despite a common misconception that basic income disincentivizes work, Vidović says he would continue working even if his basic income continued indefinitely, and fears his brain “would go rusty” otherwise.
But he adds that the biggest boon is less about work and more about everything else. “Both my partner and I are divorced and have children, which came with many debts, so the income has created time for my family and improved the quality of life for all of us.”
Even if Mein Grundeinkommen’s supply did match its demand, some might think a basic income should go beyond just creating family time or greater career fulfillment. But a 2018 Pew Research Center survey says those two qualities—family and career—are by far Americans’ greatest “sources of meaning,” so while pundits continue to explore a basic income’s potential to tackle political problems, perhaps, in the meantime, it can help address existential ones.
Julia Hotz is the Communities Manager at Solutions Journalism Network, where she helps journalists and journalism entrepreneurs around the world build communities that advance solutions journalism. She co-hosts Google’s Tell Me Something Good—a daily newscast about what’s working to tackle today’s biggest issues. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Civil Eats, Yes! Magazine, and more.