OECD ‘How was life?’-report highlights two centuries of wellbeing around the globe

How do countries around the globe differ when it comes to wellbeing and prosperity? And to what extent is inequality lower of higher than decades ago? The new OECD publication ‘How was Life? II’ helps to answer these and other questions by showing economic development in over 40 countries worldwide, in the last 200 years. On 25 March, the report is presented in an online programme. Jan Luiten van Zanden, professor in Economic history, is one of the authors. He explains why the study is a ‘goldmine’ when it comes to knowledge about wellbeing in societies worldwide.

Every other year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), publishes its ‘How’s life’ study, which shows the current state of wellbeing in over 40 countries around the globe. Wellbeing is measured by comparing over 80 different dimensions, such as income, health and social structures. As of 2014, the 'How was life?'-study adds a historical dimension to these data, by showing important long-term trends. The second edition of the series, New perspectives on historical global inequality, will be published on March 25th. It brings additional insights on historical developments in people’s well-being by presenting evidence on new aspects, including working time and social spending, and new facets of inequality, including inequality in wealth, length of lives, educational attainment and extreme poverty.

‘It’s (more than) the economy, stupid!’

Welfare and wellbeing in all its dimensions

The ‘How was Life?’ series is a result of the intensive cooperation between the OECD and professor Angus Maddison (University of Groningen), who published several studies about the world economy, using large datasets. After he passed away, Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University) who was working on global wellbeing from a historical perspective as well, took over. He explains: ‘At the time, I was working with fellow historians on the Clio Infra-project, in which we wanted to offer an alternative measure for welfare, beyond GDP. You could see this as a starting point for the nowadays wide ? debate about broad prosperity, beyond economic measures. The OECD was the first to offer an alternative framework for measuring wellbeing in societies. Their wish for a historical perspective to this, eventually led to the first How was Life-study, Global Well-being since 1820.’

Utrecht University was the first to offer a composite wellbeing indicator in the Netherlands

Wellbeing as a measure beyond GDP, taking into account several dimensions that define citizen's quality of life, is now more and more embraced. In the Netherlands for example, the national bureaus for policy analysis (PBL, SCP and CBP) decided that broad prosperity has to become a permanent factor in the national budget. Since 2014, Utrecht University lies ahead with its focus on welfare as a multidimensional indicator. Together with RaboResearch, the Better Wellbeing Index (BWI) was developed, a measuring instrument that takes into account eleven different aspects of wellbeing (see infographic below). It matches the Better Life dimensions used by the OECD, which makes it a solid and reliable indicator for international measurement.

Eleven dimensions of the Better Well-Being Index
Infographic. Eleven dimensions of wellbeing in the Better Wellbeing Indicator

'Combining all our knowledge offers unique insights into long-term trends in wellbeing'

The second How was Life? report brings together extensive knowledge from international experts in economic history. Van Zanden: ‘Together, our knowledge offers a goldmine when it comes to information about long-term and global developments on all the main aspects of welfare. To stimulate better wellbeing, it is important to gain insight into long-term trends. Although we cannot predict the future, as the current Covid-19 crisis proves, we still can use our knowledge on long-term trends to see which topics deserve more attention. For example oo make certain choices in policy.’

On Thursday March 25th, the new 'How was Life?' report will be launched in an online programme. Signing up for the presentation is still possible.

More information
Launch event