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How was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820


The OECD has published a new report on the changes in human well-being over the past 200 years for 25 countries. The publication provides important data on long-term trends on living standards that go far beyond measurement of GDP per capita.

The findings show that while global well-being substantially increased, income inequalities have risen in many parts of the world since the 1970s as well as pointing to a negative correlation between GDP per capita and the quality of the environment.

How was life? looks at the following indicators:
  •     GDP per head
  •     Wages
  •     Education
  •     Life expectancy
  •     Height (a proxy for the quality of people’s physical health and nutrition)
  •     Personal security
  •     Political institutions
  •     Environmental quality
  •     Income inequality
  •     Gender inequality
  •     Composite views of well-being
Some of the results lend support to policies that improve skills, health and security levels in societies, while indirectly showing the costs of others – including austerity, lack of action to reduce  income inequality and the failure to support “green growth”.

The report confirms that the world’s average GDP per capita increased by a factor of 10 between 1820 and 2010; as total population increased seven-fold, total real GDP went up by a factor of 70. This spread is uneven between regions, resulting in a considerable increase in income disparities between countries.

On the positive side, Education (as measured by literacy and educational attainment) and health (as measured by life expectancy - that increased even when GDP per capita stagnated, due to advances in knowledge and technological capacity – and height) improved strongly in many countries, and there is a “strong cross-section and over-time correlation with GDP per capita”, according to the findings. Levels of literacy have reached close to 100% almost everywhere, outside of Africa, where it is 64% and the MENA region and Southeast Asia, where it is 75% on average. There has also been a strong increase in the average years spent in education in all parts of the world. The levels of global inequality are much lower for education than they are for real income.

Income inequality declined until about 1970, when it rose again with significant increases in the United States and United Kingdom and modest increases in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, low income inequality levels increased sharply after the 1990s. In other parts of the world, and particularly in China, recent economic and policy trends resulted in greater income inequality as well.

As stated above, the report finds a negative correlation between GDP per capita and the quality of the environment. Biodiversity declined in all regions and worldwide due to big-scale changes in land use as the OECD argues, while “per capita emissions of CO2 increased after the industrial revolution in Western Europe, accelerating in the mid-20th century as other regions increased their GDP, and is still increasing globally”.

Meanwhile, Gender inequality has been declining over the past 60 years in most regions with the exception of East Asia and Eastern Europe, where this decline stalled from the 1980s onwards. The index used in the publication reviews inequalities in health, marriage, socio-economic status and political rights.

Finally, the Composite indicator on well-being suggests that “since the 1970s between-country inequality in composite well-being has been lower than in GDP per capita, while being more pronounced in the period before”.

The report builds and complements the OECD’s regular How’s Life report on well-being.

The report and its key findings are posted here: http://www.oecd.org/statistics/how-was-life9789264214262-en.htm

A data visualization tool comparing data in-between countries and throughout time is provided here: http://gitvfd.github.io/How-was-life/