There’s a common thread running through the protests that dominate the headlines in recent years; from the Arab Spring to G20 excesses, and from Greece to the streets of Montreal, there are people putting paid to the old notions of economic prosperity. People are increasingly aware that their personal wellbeing extends beyond a simple accounting of GDP, balance of trade and the bankers’ pound of flesh. From basics such as clean drinking water and personal safety right through to educational opportunities and leisure activities, a prosperous life has many measures.
Students in Quebec don’t like where educational reform is taking them. Citizens of Greece don’t want their quality of life sacrificed to the banks. Those in the Occupy movement denounce a system that rewards the 1% at the expense of the 99%. They’re all acutely aware that the standard economic indicators aren’t enough, and that the traditional approach of governments just isn’t serving their needs.
The economic crisis that followed the meltdown caused by the financial services industry brought many of these longstanding issues to the forefront, accelerating a 30-year decline in our standard of living and the attack on the middle class.
Canadians were hit less hard than many others, but we’ve not been exempt from the austerity measures. Nor has the federal government been a friend to the average citizen. That might help explain why we dropped to sixth place this week from second spot last year on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s quality-of-life index.
Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. It captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective wellbeing. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Canadians gave it a 7.4 grade, higher than the OECD average of 6.7. That put us behind Australia, Norway, the United States, Sweden and Denmark.
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Part of the drop can be explained by changes to the way the index is compiled, but there’s reason to be wary. As the Canadian Index of Wellbeing found last year, our wellbeing is lagging behind economic growth. While GDP rose 31 per cent between 1994 and 2008, the index of wellbeing rose by just 11 per cent, with the lion’s share of the benefits going to the wealthiest 20 per cent.
Beyond simple economic indicators, the index (CIW) takes into account eight factors: living standards, healthy populations, community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, time use and leisure and culture. The latter three all are getting worse according to last year’s report, with a new study due in October.
The short form explanation for the situation is that we’re working longer hours but not enjoying the fruits of our labours. For Linda McKessock, CIW project manager based at the University of Waterloo, the measurements are part of a growing international trend to put hard, scientific numbers to quality of life issues that have long gone unquantified. Such reports provide a more balanced approach to judging our standard of living, going beyond simple economic numbers.
“Studies like this are trying to get a handle on what their citizens value,” she explains, pointing to the OECD report and national efforts like the CIW being carried out in other countries.
With all the talk of austerity, much of the debate has focused on traditional economic data – GDP, unemployment and similar indictors – but the range of protests and movements emerging show citizens have broader priorities.
“There are other things that we need to keep our eye on.”
Reports such as the CIW and the OECD Better Life Index allow us to see things through a much broader prism rather than the traditional economic measures. That in turn fuels local, grassroots movements that push for more focus on wellbeing. Ideally, the federal government eventually takes note, says McKessock.
While rankings such as those in the OECD index aren’t necessarily helpful, it does help to look at what other countries are doing so that we can adopt those practices here – essentially we’re always learning from others.
In Canada, where the political direction is counter to our quality of life, it’s especially important to take note of the successes of more progressive, citizen-friendly policies. That’s certainly the case in the Nordic countries.
They are great examples of civil society setting the agenda rather than just focusing on the message of the elites.
Canada may not be moving in the right direction on all fronts, but reports based on objective data help us understand the choices we’re making , she notes.
Since we live in a system of our own making, every policy and direction is a choice. Ideally, those choices are made to benefit the average citizen, though that’s often not the case.
So, what would get us moving in the right direction? Focusing on people, says McKessock.
“This is all about doing the best for our people,” she argues of measuring wellbeing and putting supportive policies in place. That in turn will boost the traditional economic numbers. “If we invest in our people, it will be good for our economy.”