Mapping the history of wellbeing

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

How’s Life in your region?

BLI regionalHow’s life in your neighbourhood? Do you take reviving lungfuls of clean fresh air when you step outside your front door, or struggle to peer through a miasma of polluted particles? Is it easy to find a job or is unemployment higher than in neighbouring areas? When it comes to measuring wellbeing, national figures are all very well, but they cannot tell you what it’s like to live in a particular region or city.

Our day-to-day experience is essentially local – how easy is it to find a job, is there good Internet access and how clean is the air? And how can you find out these things about a new area?

The OECD’s Regional Wellbeing tool enables you to do just that. It compares wellbeing indicators for 362 OECD regions in eight topics – income, jobs, health, access to services, environment, education, safety, and civic engagement. A score has been calculated for each topic and you can compare your region with other regions in your own country, or with regions in other countries. So you can discover, for instance, that northeast England and Utah have a similar wellbeing level, or that life in Nunavut in Canada is similar to that in Chihuahua, Mexico, at least from a wellbeing standpoint.

But why should we care about regional wellbeing? For one thing, metropolitan areas are a major source of economic growth. More than 50% of economic growth and job creation in the OECD area occurs in the 275 metropolitan regions (each with a population of more than 500,000). But now in almost half (45%) of these metropolitan areas unemployment is higher than for the national economy. Once you know that a disproportionately high share of national unemployment is concentrated in a limited number of regions, and which ones they are, you can start to look at regional policies that can help. Does the workforce in the region have a good level of education? The regional wellbeing tool can tell you what proportion of the population has at least completed high school. In Korea the capital region scores highest on a national comparison, and in the top 28% among OECD regions.

If health is what matters to you most, then perhaps your region should take a leaf out of the Ile-de-France’s book. The area round the French capital is the top area in France in health, and in the top 1% among OECD regions.

The new regional tool follows many of the topics already covered at national level in the OECD Better Life Index, and brings wellbeing measures down to a more local level. So, how’s life in your region?