The latest release of the OECD’s Better Life Index shows that Australia remains a very wealthy nation with generally good health but that we continue to have a poor work-life balance, despite that being the area we rank most highly. Perhaps worst of all, however, Australian women, more than just about any other nation in the OECD, feel unsafe walking home alone at night.
The common refrain about GDP is that it measures everything except what is important. Even GDP per capita is a pretty poor measure of people’s livelihoods – given it says nothing about income or gender inequality, let alone aspects such as health and safety, the environment or education.
The OECD has, since 2011, attempted to provide a more expansive measure of wellbeing with its Better Life Index.
The index looks at data across a range of categories, from income and employment to job strain, personal safety, life satisfaction, housing and civic engagement.
The latest annual report has just been issued and it finds that on average Australia comes in third among OECD nations, just behind Norway and Denmark and just ahead of Sweden and Canada.
However, Australia comes in third only when equal weight is given to all categories – including, for instance, civic engagement.
We have a high score for civic engagement because the measure used for this is voter turnout. Given we have compulsory voting, our civic engagement is thus perhaps artificially high. However, as the 79.5% turnout for the recent marriage equality poll showed, even when voting is not compulsory our turnout remains well above the OECD average:
While Australia looks a great place to live (when all categories are given equal weight) we ourselves would not rank Australia so highly – because people do not weight matters such as civic engagement as highly as they do health or life satisfaction.
Since the OECD has been running its Better Life Index it has allowed people to rank the categories in order of preference. And while the rankings are not a perfect representation of the nation – given as they only include those who share their rankings on the OECD site – they do give us some indication of where people’s preferences lie.
Perhaps not surprisingly people across all OECD nations rank civic engagement as the least important category. Only 6.8% of Australians regarded the category as the most important – well below the 11.9% who chose work-life balance.
Interestingly, the three categories Australians chose as most important are different from those chosen by people from the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Germany:
Were we to order the Better Life Index according to the preferences given by Australians, our rank among OECD nations would likely drop, from third to eighth.
This is because rating work-life balance as the most important, and civic engagement as the least important, means Australia performs above-average in the category it doesn’t consider important, and below-average in the category it does.
Across the OECD, Australia has the fifth highest percentage of people working more than 50 hours a week, and among those nations with available data, the second lowest for average time each day devoted to leisure and personal care:
If we ranked the categories according to Australian preferences, Norway would keep the top spot, followed by Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and Finland. It would appear that Australians (or at least those who have used the OECD index) like the idea of the Scandinavian lifestyle.
It is a good reminder that income does not always lead to higher life satisfaction.
Australia has a higher level of average disposable income, average net wealth and average earnings than all of the nine nations that record a higher level of life satisfaction, except for Norway and Switzerland:
The data also suggest that while inequality may have been rising in Australia, it remains around the average of the OECD, and well below the levels of the US:
We are also a nation that loves our big houses.
Excluding the bathroom, toilet, kitchenette, scullery/utility rooms and garages, Australian have on average 2.3 rooms per person – the fourth highest among the OECD – behind only Canada, the US and New Zealand, reflecting perhaps the ability of those nations to have much larger houses due to area size and lower population density than Japan, Korea and the European nations.
Despite this, our housing costs – in terms of ongoing expenses rather than actual cost of the house – remains low among the OECD:
One ongoing issue for Australians, somewhat surprisingly, remains personal safety.
Despite very good results on life expectancy, personal health and the homicide rate, only 63.6% of Australians feel safe when walking home at night.
This score is well below the OECD average and well behind nations such as the US (74.1%), the UK (77.4%) and Canada (80.9%):
One reason it might be somewhat surprising to me is that, as a man, it is much less of an issue for me personally.
The OECD Better Life Index also breaks down the data according to gender.
Overall, Australia does quite well on gender inequality (relatively speaking).
While Australian women earn on average only 87% what men do per hour, that is above the OECD average. While there is a smaller percentage of women than men aged 25-64 who have upper secondary or higher education, the report notes that Australian “men and women are almost equal in terms of time off, and Australian women are less likely than men to work very long hours”.
But where Australia really falls down on gender disparity is in feeling safe. While Australian men feel above-average safety, only women in Chile, Mexico and Hungary feel less safe walking home alone at night.
For every 10 Australian men who say they feel safe walking home at night there are only 6.3 women who would say the same – the worst gender differential in the OECD:
The Better Life Index remains a good attempt to quantify those things in life that matter besides how much production is occurring in the economy. And while, as with any such measures, there will be argument over the choice of data used to measure each category, what the index does highlight is that how you rank the quality of your life depends not only on what you consider important but also on who you are.