Suppose we have an interstellar generation ship, with an initial population of about 10,000 and a final population (on arrival) of about 20,000. Since they're traveling for sixty-some-odd years, people will need to have jobs. It's a space ship though, so there are no raw materials to extract; without new raw materials, industrial production is limited. Traditional farming is likewise off the table. Everything is a closed loop, by necessity. There is a limited military-style hierarchy, the ship's operations crew and command structure, but the vast majority of people on the ship would be civilians. Contact with Earth and the rest of the Sol system is severely limited.

So the question is: how are they compensated? By who? And how, in general, does this economy work?

EDIT for clarification: I do not mean 'economy' in the sense of 'capitalism', or even 'money', but in the sense of 'creation and distribution of goods and services'. Capitalism is one option. Socialism is also an economy. Command economy, barter system, gift-giving, these are all economic systems. The ship has people, and people need things (like food), ergo the things must be distributed to the people. Thus, there is by definition some sort of micro-economy. I'm just trying to figure out what it will look like.

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    $\begingroup$ Since they're traveling for sixty-some-odd years, people will need to have jobs. What for? I mean, what happens if you don't have enough, you get homeless? On the other extreme, what's the point of accumulating money, you finally get to own the entire shit (to be recycled) of all the people on the ship? No, seriously, in a very limited and closed world what's the point of having money as a motivation? $\endgroup$ Apr 21 '20 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Tinker, tailor, spy, baker, candlestick maker, domestic help, baby sitter, teacher (of children and of adults, of languages, of mathematics, of literature, of medicine, of art), sports coach, painter, poet, playwright, writer, actor, director, composer, musician, sound engineer, secretary, prostitute, gigolo, cook, bartender, chambermaid, busboy, waiter, tech support, gossip columnist, clothes mender, psychologist, psychiatrist, medic, veterinarian, dentist, barber, hair stylist, manicurist, cosmetician, interior decorator, psychic, policeman, fashion designer, lawyer, judge, usher, ... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 21 '20 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi: Yes, I commented on the right question. I listed a small part of a large set of occupations. In a population of 10,000 people and more, those occupation will exist. What exactly people will use for money -- computerised credits, postal stamps, chocolate bars, candy, pieces of paper with pretty pictures on them -- is of secondary importance. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 21 '20 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ I guess related, but never officially answered. Hope this helps: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/91365/34793 $\endgroup$ Apr 21 '20 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ I would suggest that OP read the book Mayflies by Kevin Odonnel. It's set aboard a generation ship that goes for longer than expected and has several different societies through the years. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Apr 21 '20 at 23:40

10 Answers 10


This generation ship will look somewhat similar to a cruise ship.

Smaller part of population is the crew. Its duty is to maintain and pilot the ship. Larger part of population are passengers. They don't need to have any duty, but they should be ready to fill a vacancy in crew ranks.

As far as economy goes, there are 3 options:

  1. Communism. Or, more precisely, fully commanded economy. All jobs are provided by ship's command. All lodging and services are free, but rationed according to present situation. Money, if exist at all, are only supplemental - one can't buy, for example, a better berth for any kind of money.

  2. Socialism. Some jobs are provided by the command, others are for people to create. All basic necessities are free, but all luxury goods and services cost money. Lodging is still owned and maintained by the command, but one can upgrade to a first class stateroom for extra money.

  3. Capitalism. Few jobs are provided by the command, while most non-essential ship services are run by the people. Lodging is owned by people and rent prices are market-based. For the poorest ones, command provides a subsidy, but some still end up living in ship's common areas.

  • $\begingroup$ Since the question is closed and I don't want to edit/reopen it (I've gotten a lot of great feedback from everyone!) I'm going to slap the check next to your answer. It's the highest-upvoted one anyways and does a nice job of succinctly breaking down the three best options for the overall economy. $\endgroup$
    – Izzy
    Apr 22 '20 at 13:21

There are two types of people on a colony ship (as you describe it):

  • People who expect to die before they arrive and colonize
  • People who are expected to live until colonization date

These two groups of people should have only two goals (assuming survival is easy):

  1. Raise their children to be good parents (Primarily for those who will die)
  2. Prepare for colonization tasks with education and training (For those who will colonize)

These facts being as they are, I don't think your ship will have a "traditional economy" with jobs that produce money people need to survive. Are you going to let people starve? No. Are you going to throw people out of airlocks because there are no jobs for them? No. As such, I think all the "jobs" that aren't directly related to keeping the ship running and people alive and fed will somehow revolve around the two goals or be artistic/hobbies in nature.

People who will die before arrival would focus on having children and raising those children (and the ship's children in general) to be capable colonists. In this, they'll primarily train their kids to be good people (generous, kind, empathetic, etc) and good team players over "hard skills" like how to be a doctor or how to construct a cabin because those skills will only be useful post colonization. For example, a colonist born early on could be in their late 50's by the time they set foot on solid ground. For that person, being liked by the other passengers, understanding them, and trusting them for when an inevitable time of crisis comes is much more important than being able to sow a field or build a cellar. Those things can be trained a couple years before landing.

Other than education and child-rearing, passengers could also focus on preparing for colonization. 10-20k people is enough intellectual capital to do things like write software, make plans, or design equipment along with planning for any event that could possibly happen. With 60 years and thousands of idle minds, a lot of thinking can get done.


Operations, education, and science

You could make your economy as loosely or tightly controlled as you want. Want to create a libertarian paradise? Go for it. Want a carefully planned economy? You're the author. Here are my thoughts, but you have a lot of freedom here.

Think of your generation ship as a city. What jobs do people have in a city? Sure this isn't a traditional city, but there's a lot to do. If you've ever been aboard a Navy ship (especially an aircraft carrier), you'll see people doing all sorts of mundane tasks. Cleaning, cooking, cleaning, painting, cleaning, etc. (The Navy really likes to keep things clean.) Check out this list of Navy ratings. Plenty of those roles would be necessary on your ship and could be filled by civilians. Construction, medicine, personnel, logistics, religious leadership, etc. You could create a pay scale like the US government uses for civilians where each person has a specific rank that carries a specific salary. In a city of that size, there's even room for some entrepreneurship.

Beyond the day-to-day operations, remember the mission of your ship. Education should be a major component of daily life. There's a lot to do once the ship lands. You'll need an education system that covers everything from preschool to PhD. Every settler should know about the destination planet, science, reading, writing, etc. Even the first generation of passengers should learn all of these things so they can better teach their children.

Is this the first time people have ever traveled this far from home? If so, they'll need to conduct scientific research while underway. Compare this part to the International Space Station, which is primarily a science mission. Here's how the they spend their time.


You'd want to encourage these people to actually be contributing to the mini society, especially when you start relying on the second/third generations to actually do some of the work.

But if it only takes 10,000 people to run the ship to start off with and you are only growing a small percentage of the overall food intake, what are the extra 10,000 going to be doing? I guess a percentage of those would be still in education or retired by this point, but still, that's a lot of people doing not doing a lot. I'd expect more people to be in higher education or learning skills that would be beneficial on destination planet.

I doubt a generational ship would have a great deal of 'extras' to buy or to use as compensation. I mean given that if something goes wrong with the ship these people are fairly screwed, would you prefer to send a couple of extra tons of fuel/spare parts or cupcakes?

I think everyone would have to start with some basic necessities, a bed, three meals a day, clothes, etc. regardless of whether they work or not.

It may also be beneficial to have a way of penalising people for crime/incompetence that doesn't involve throwing them in a room (or space?) where they can't be productive. So everyone may get a chocolate bar or access to entertainment by default.

I think any benefits of working and being promoted would be quite practical like extra living space, access to a gym, maybe better food or a choice of food. This would be tied to the job you do (and I assume the number of children you have). But because it's such a small economic system, those benefits would either need to be tightly rationed or expire week to week. So you couldn't not go to a gym for three years then book it out for a week.

Don't underestimate peoples desire for status as well, even if it's chief corridor sweeper, that could be seen as being better than sits on backside all day. I'd also expect that a good chunk of education would drive the notion of being productive.


You have a few options but an advantage: All people can have the same sleep cylcle and are (literally) on the same boat:

  • don't use any compensation, just have some kind of dispenser in a mensa for each person or in each home
    • maybe a computercontrolled dispenser?
    • StarTrek replicator
  • do some kind of unconditional basic income UBI:
    • there are jobs at the ship, even when they are sparse where you can gain extra credits
    • everyone has an income so nobody needs to have hunger
    • there are already some discussions in reallife

Your society is too small, and too resource-poor, to run a capitalist system. There may be a few exceptions to that.

  • The job of the first generation is to maintain the ship and to raise (and train) their successors.
  • The job of the second generation is to maintain the ship, to raise (and train) their successors, and to care for the elderly in the first generation (as far as resources permit).
  • The job of the third generation is to maintain the ship, to execute the mission on arrival, and to care for the elderly from two generations (as above).

Take the skill set of insystem piloting and asteroid mining. This could become crucial for the third generation. Will they take a dusty manual from the shelf and read it? Or will there be second-generation pilots who were trained by the first-generation pilots in simulators, with the sole purpose in life of training the third-generation pilots?

Your only option is a command economy for all significant decisions. There might be a little bit of free market to let crew buy luxuries, but the rest is incredibly constrained.

Crewmembers draw their rations, based on available supplies. If the original plans were right, those will be tight but sufficient. Same for housing, clothing, medical care.

Perhaps there are "credit points" to buy ice cream and a stylish tee-shirt after the shift. More likely, those points don't buy ice cream because calories are rationed. Perhaps it is possible to "buy" an "upgrade" from porridge with sugar to a cream cake with synthetic chocolate flavor.


Capitalism really won't work here in any form. Even basic income won't fix the flaws of capitalism in this context. The margins on life support are so tight that you'd have virtually no ability to make trade offs like a farmer selling his farmland to build a new habitat wing.

Because of the closed economy in which nothing new can be created without taking from something that already exists, you'd even run into problems if a traditional market for luxury goods exists. Essentially it would lead to massive externality problems in that according to the luxury market, the value of life support is zero, in a similar problem to carbon emissions in the present.

You'd essentially need a Star Trek style economy in which everything is just provided as needed within reasonable limits, whether or not you have replicators. At the same time, you'd also need something to incentivize the work and education that needed to be continued until you arrive at the destination solar system.

What has been argued about Star Trek is that they have a reputational economy. While they rarely talk about how this works, it likely means that people do what they do because it gives them more respect. Having the best restaurant means you'd have more respect, which would allow you to expand further and open a second location on the ship. Having rank on the ship would similarly give privileges like having a slightly larger cabin or a quicker seat at said restaurant. Manu Saadia's book Trekonomics is a rather in depth idea about how this sort of economic system might work.


I think that you will need either a mixed (my preference) or a command economy.

I think that 10,000 is a bit small but it is at the very edge of the smallest gene pool for the new colony. Along those lines, I'd recommend banks of frozen embryos or sperm & eggs.

Also, what is the job of the mission? It is to create a viable colony. What do you need for that? People with the training and resources to start a colony from scratch. And, you also need to get them there. Everyone who is not going to be of functional, working age upon arrival is just a resource. The "payload" is the generation of 15-40 year olds that will be building the new colony.

This might mean that the economy needs to shift between the first half and the second half of the trip.

So, what does the economy have to incentivize? Maintaining the ship and maintaining a system that will produce the best "landing generation" as possible.

If you don't have separate crew and civilian distinctions (which would cause conflict both on the ship and in the new colony through class wars), you need to get people to maintain the ship, maintain the inhabitants, and prepare the landers.

Money could be either computer stored "credits" or anything physical that can be easily traded. A neat thought would be for the money to influence the percentage of resources the landers get on the new world. That way even the early generation(s) has an incentive to make money so they can pass it to their children to give them a better chance of success. Also, even of you don't go that last route, if you don't provide money the people will create it themselves.

I suspect that unless you go the completely authoritarian route, that you will have a mixed command and free market economy. For ship maintenance work, a certain amount has to happen or everyone dies. So, the prices of that will be set high enough that you will get enough people to do it.

Teaching (unless you have automated courses) will also need to be incentivized as will medicine (again unless automated). I would avoid such automation since it would train people to be less than self reliant. A free market may work here or you may need a regulated market (controls that kick in if things go out of balance).

There will also be entertainment jobs just to keep people from going nuts. This will be free market. The people will create it even if it is not provided and they will create some kind of money to pay for it (or barter their rations for it).

One reason to go with the "credits" type of money is that it can take into account disruptions to the system. If someone comes up with a method that allows the colony to do more with the current resources, you can create extra credits to give to that person the increase. That would incentivize that sort of thinking and give the colony the best chance of success.

You might end up with a significant research section in the ship.


You just need to have a system of credits in place, with a central computer controlling the balance of each individuals.

Doing activities needed for the ship gives to the doer credits, which can be used to purchase other items or services. Demand and offer can regulate the tariffs according to the moment.

Every member of the ship population will have their badge to authorize transactions and update their balance in the central system.

  • $\begingroup$ Given that it is a closed system, all works are needed to survive. And the works that are not needed to survive are useless. So you will not work for money, but to enable someone else to make you survive. $\endgroup$
    – Gianluca
    Apr 21 '20 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Gianluca that's true even on Earth. I don't get your point $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 21 '20 at 15:23

I don't think you need a economy system on such a ship. A generational ship will work like an self sustained army and it must be this way: there are things that needed to be done and you cannot outsource them. Also, since it is a closed system there is not distinction between crew and passenger. Everyone has a work to do. The only minor concession can be that there can be some choice about the work you want to do, but in the end all the positions must be covered.
As a consequence, money has no meaning and so wealth.

If you still want some type of economy, think about a subsistence economy, although a little richer, you have no resource for anything more.

  • $\begingroup$ Explaining the down vote: a war economy is still an economy. By definition, economy is the study of the allocation of scarce resources; nothing cries "scarce resources" louder than a generation spaceship. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 21 '20 at 18:59

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