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Mapping the history of wellbeing

2 October 2014
by Sue Kendall

How was life“You don’t know how lucky you are; when I was young we were so much poorer/sicker/less educated than people today” – a fairly common comparison, but one that relies on individual memory and can only take us back a few decades . And even then, we may not have much detail. We might know where our grandparents lived and worked, how much education they had and whether they had a long and healthy life, but what of our great-grandparents? And was their wellbeing solely determined by how much money they had, or were other factors at play? Can we get a sense of how people’s lives have improved over the past two centuries beyond the monetary?

Our view of economic and social development since the Industrial Revolution is to a large extent based on estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) per head such as those published in Angus Maddison’s History of the World Economy. But trends in GDP per head do not capture what life was like for individuals, their life expectancy, education, personal safety or inequality across society. Increasingly, we are using wellbeing to measure human development, but can we do the same for the lives of our forebears?

Following in the footsteps of Angus Madison, a group of historians got together with the OECD and OECD Development Centre to map the history of wellbeing across the globe, mirroring the approach of the OECD’s present-day Better Life Initiative.

The result, How Was Life? Global Trends in Wellbeing since 1820, looks at 10 dimensions of wellbeing from 1820 to the present day: real wages, educational attainment, life expectancy, height, personal security, political institutions, environmental quality, income inequality and gender inequality, as well as economic growth in the form of gross domestic product (GDP) per head.

So how can we tell how healthy people were over the past 200 years? How Was Life uses two different approaches. Life expectancy, a common element with the OECD’s modern day BLI, is relatively easy to source from historical records, but provides information only on how long people lived – not how healthy they were while alive. Since we cannot go back and ask 19th century men and women about the state of their health, How Was Life uses height instead. Height is a good indicator of general health and nutrition, particularly in childhood, and can be measured from prison and army records, and even the bones of people long dead.

Using literacy and data on years in education, the authors found that while only 20% of people in the world were able to read in 1820, by 2000 the figure was 80%. The rising trend in education followed trends in GDP fairly closely.

But in other cases the relationship between wellbeing and GDP was perhaps more surprising. Life expectancy, for example, continued to improve around the world even when GDP per capita stagnated. The reason? Advances in medical technology and its spread across the globe. Overall, life expectancy around the world more than doubled between 1880 and 2000, from below 30 years to almost 70, and today in OECD countries it is up to 80 years on average.

What does it all mean? Overall, wellbeing has improved over the past two centuries, but not always in the ways or for the reasons we might have thought. The industrial revolution sometimes meant workers were worse off and worse fed than before, for example. Income inequality generally fell from the end of the 19th century until about 1970, but then it rose again. Taking the full range of indicators covered in the report into account reveals an interesting pattern. Before the 1970s global inequality in well-being was higher than global inequality in GDP per capita, but since the 1970s the reverse is true, with the other dimensions of well-being (such as health) more equally distributed across the world than incomes.

Useful links

How’s Life?

OECD Regional wellbeing tool

One Response leave one →
  1. October 16, 2014

    The OECD should be congratulated for producing this research, which provides such a wealth of data and insights into the changes in wellbeing over nearly 200 years. As the paper notes, these dimensions provide a better view of wellbeing than one based on GDP per capita alone.

    This topic is something Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand has recently explored in our publication as well – Is policy making measuring up?? Rethinking how we measure the success of a nation. In it we recommend that GDP is reported alongside a measure of wellbeing, such as the Social Progress Index, when reporting national progress.

    We encourage the OECD and other global bodies to provide greater focus on reporting non-GDP based measures alongside GDP per capita when comparing the progress of nations so that this methodology can become more mainstream.

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