Happy New Year’s Resolutions!

No harm trying, I suppose
No harm trying, I suppose

Today’s post is from Kate Lancaster, editor in charge of publications on social and financial issues and employment at the OECD.

Babylonians, Romans, Puritans did it,
Teens and queens and epicenes do it,
Let’s do it, let’s be resolved…
(apologies to Cole Porter)

For millennia, people have rung in the New Year with resolutions for self-improvement. Ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods, in particular that they would return borrowed objects and repay loans; Romans made vows to Janus, the deity whose two faces simultaneously looked back to the past and forward to the future. Puritans fasted, prayed and resolved to be free of sin in the year to come.

In the 21st century, the habit of making New Year’s resolutions is still going strong. The perennial favorites are saving money and losing weight, though the US government also includes drinking less, eating more healthily getting a better education or better job, improving fitness, managing stress, quitting smoking, recycling, taking a trip and volunteering on its list of popular resolutions.

If these are the areas in which we feel we need to improve, does this mean we are all overweight, in debt, under-educated, poorly employed, unfit, stressed-out smokers, without the time to take a vacation, do our part for the environment, or help others? What’s the real picture in OECD countries?

Health data reveal that we’re smoking less, with rates dropping about 20% during the last 10 years, in most countries. When it comes to alcohol, however, the picture is less positive. We may be smoking less, but we’re not necessarily drinking less too. The average rate of alcohol consumption in the OECD has gradually fallen during the past 30 years, but by how much varies widely from country to country, and drinking has even increased in places. We’re getting fatter too. Data show that more than 50% of adults are overweight or obese in 19 out of the 34 OECD countries and this is projected to rise to 65% or more  in some OECD countries by 2020.

While our bodies might not be faring so well, our minds are. More adults than ever have at least a high school education in the OECD and the same is true for higher education. The rate of graduates has been steadily rising as well and today nearly 210 million people in OECD countries have completed a degree. For those finishing their education today, however, the job market is tough, as it is for those with lower levels of skills or long periods of unemployment. With 15 million more people unemployed today than five years ago, it’s clear that finding or changing jobs in today’s economic climate is challenging.

What about managing our money? If the crisis has showed us anything, it was that many of us need some financial education. The OECD is working on measuring what we know: the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), for example, is including financial literacy in its 2012 testing of 15-year-olds’ competencies. And the OECD and the International Network on Financial Education are collaborating on a portal for financial education information and resources.

So the picture is mixed as we start 2013… perhaps we need those resolutions after all. The real question is, perhaps, where is the data on keeping resolutions?

Useful links

OECD Key Tables: Health

Health at a Glance 2011

OECD Key Tables: Education

OECD Education at a Glance 2012

OECD Key Tables: Employment and Labour Market Trends

OECD Employment Outlook

Gateway for Financial Education

Guest author

Leave a Reply