“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.
Most people would agree that (a) there is more to life than money; (b) there is more to progress than GDP growth; and (c) there is more to democracy than voting. But how can citizens make their voices heard and how can policy makers know if they’re addressing the issues that really matter?
The OECD Better Life Initiative was launched a year ago to address these concerns. The Initiative builds on a decade of international reflection on measuring the progress of societies. Its two principal elements are Your Better Life Index (BLI), an online tool that enables citizens to visualize well-being in OECD countries according to what is important to them; and How’s Life?, a report bringing together for the first time internationally comparable measures of well-being in line with recommendations in the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission report.
Users of Your Better Life Index “weigh” 11 topics that contribute to well-being – community, education, environment, governance, health, housing, income, jobs, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance – to generate their own Index. An overall description of the quality of life in each country is also provided, including how it performs across the 20 individual indicators that make up the 11 topics. Freely-accessible OECD reports and other sources of information are provided to assist those who want to learn more.
Since its launch last May, the Index has received nearly one million visits from practically every country on the planet and has been referenced internationally as a model for presenting material on measuring well-being. Feedback from users has enabled the OECD to draw initial conclusions on what is driving well-being. Users consistently rank “life satisfaction”, “education” and “health” the most highly, regardless of their country of origin, suggesting that no matter where we live, we worry and care about the same things.
There is also little difference between the sexes, or between generations, although younger people (15-34) put greater emphasis on “work-life balance,” “income” and “jobs”, whereas people over 65 prioritise “health” and “the environment.” Overall, “community,” “income” and “governance” rank far lower relatively.
Your Better Life Index will be widening its coverage as it enters its second year. The geographical range will be extended to include Brazil and Russia, bringing the total number of countries covered to 36. The Index is also widening its language coverage, with a full French version which we hope will be the first of a string of versions in different languages. This will be a critical element for expanding the global user community, exponentially increasing the feedback received through completed indexes.
In fact, each year Your Better Life Index will be enriched with more factors important for measuring well-being. In response to user findings, new indicators have been added in 2012 to strengthen the “education”, “jobs”, “environment” and “housing” dimensions. Users will also be able to compile their index taking account of degrees of equality between men and women across the topics. Why is that, for example, that men earn more and work more than women, but women live longer, are often better educated and often report greater overall happiness with life? Similarly, users will be able to see other inequalities, for example, whether their income level affects how healthy they feel or how likely they are to vote.
The capacity of Your Better Life Index to make a difference in how policies are developed depends on participation. With this in mind, enhancing the user experience to encourage participation and to make feedback more immediate are emphasized. Users will now be able to compare themselves directly with others based on location, gender and age. Comments and suggestions are more than welcome. Already, as a result of user feedback, we have added an embed feature which enables journalists, bloggers and others to capture their BLI and place it directly onto web sites and blogs.
Your Better Life Index provides an innovative way of empowering and educating everyone who cares about building a stronger, cleaner and fairer world. For the public this means being better informed about policies and their effects on well-being. For policy-makers, this means a better understanding of citizen priorities in order to shape better policies. For the OECD, this means making recommendations that more accurately reflect people’s concerns.
Our challenge is to encourage more public engagement and dialogue in order to make a more meaningful impact on what policies are needed. It is a voyage of discovery and a work in progress.