OECD Observer
Mapping the history of well-being

Overall, well-being 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.

How Was Life? Global Trends in Well-Being since 1820, looks at 10 dimensions of well-being 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 capita.

Various new methods were used to measure these dimensions back until 1820. For example, for health, height was used as well as life expectancy, as it is a good indicator of general health and nutrition, particularly in childhood.

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 well-being and GDP was perhaps more surprising. Life expectancy, for example, continued to improve around the world even when GDP per capita stagnated, due to 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.

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 that before the 1970s global inequality in well-being was higher than global inequality in GDP per capita, but since the 1970s the reverse has been true. The trouble is if income inequality continues to widen, gains in well-being may become harder to uphold.

Van Zanden, Jan Luiten., et al. (eds.) (2014), How Was Life?: Global Well-Being since 1820, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264214262-en

See also How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being, OECD 2013, and How’s Life in Your Region? Measuring Regional and Local Well-Being for Policy Making, October 2014.

©OECD Observer No 300, Q3 2014