In this edition of the Beyond GDP newsletter:
Interview with: Robert Manchin on measuring well-being and social progress
Gallup measures citizens’ awareness and attitudes towards social, political and economic matters, thus well-being and quality of life play an important role in the surveys and polls of the Gallup Organisation. Robert Manchin is also a professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium and is actively involved in a number of graduate university programmes in Europe. He is the author of several articles on social indicators, subjective well-being and quality of life. Robert Manchin is in charge of a number of large-scale European survey projects, funded by the European Commission and is working on the largest global wellbeing survey, the Gallup Worldpoll.
I think that approaches to measuring quality of life that do not take into account people’s experience of their own lives are losing credibility. Individuals are experts on their own well-being, on their own satisfaction with their lives. Valid well-being indicators that reflect the real concerns of citizens can be very useful for policy-making. But we have spent far too much energy and attention in the last decade on definitions and far too little on the different practical aspects of their application in actual policy settings.
One of your funders for the social, health and quality of life indicators is the European Union with the Eurobarometer. Who else is funding your surveys?
The principal funding behind the survey is still the Gallup Organisation itself. My colleagues firmly believe that this is an absolutely necessary measurement. No other organization has been able to deliver these indicators on the scale we have done it since 2005.
One of the main controversies is whether to use a single figure on quality of life/well-being or a set of indicators. How to use best a ‘single figure’ on quality of life or well-being – and for what not to use an index, but a more detailed set of indicators? How do well-being indices and indicator sets complement each other?
This is a hard question. I happen to believe that despite all the work that goes into the creation of a single indicator (like GDP) from the most important domain specific measures, we are chasing a holy grail. Life is more complicated. The best scientific work I have seen came down to 27 indicators. On the other hand, politicians would love to have a single simple, well-communicable and intuitive measure. But there is no single answer to the question of what constitutes a good life. The way you detecting individual aspects of your life is ideologically driven.
But composite indicators are a different thing …
That is the very same challenge. You have to select and group together various aspects of life and you have to assign weights in order to get a single composite indicator. You cannot hide behind a technical solution – you are still making choices based on values.
Why can’t we take the main five or ten important factors from polls?
That is exactly what we’ve done. But people who say that beauty, wisdom, contemplation and well-being are important value certain goods differently than other people who have, say, just come out of poverty. You can assign equal weights to “items” across all people but in the end you have heterogeneous populations with heterogeneous underlying valuation structures.
You are leading the major public opinion survey of the European Commission, the Eurobarometer. In your opinion, what is the role of measurement “beyond GDP” in the context of the Eurobarometer?
People don’t realize that in 1972-73, when the Eurobarometer was launched, a group of experts including Alec Gallup* had already done some groundbreaking work on “Patterns of Human Concerns” which was one of first large scale international well-being surveys. This and other surveys on ways of life and quality of life influenced the life satisfaction questions on the Eurobarometer, probably one of the longest time series in Europe.
What are interesting findings concerning the measurement “beyond GDP”?
We learned that there are strong “objective” life conditions that determine people’s quality of life both within and across different societies. One example of such factors is the income differentials measured by the GINI coefficient. What we find is that the dispersion of subjective well-being is much bigger in new EU member countries than in old EU member countries.
An interesting point is the development of income differentials. In the last five to eight years of the fiscal and economic crisis, we concentrated on current issues without realizing that in the last 15 years the income differentials had become larger and larger. During the crisis, these income differentials reached levels we haven’t seen before. That in itself drives down subjective quality of life. It has a relational component. When evaluating life, it is not an objective measure in the sense that you will be satisfied with a given, fixed amount of money. No matter how much most people have they compare their situation with those who are better off – and when asked how much more would be needed to be satisfied, it seems that in most European culture at least, there are always 10-20% money is missing, no matter where you are on the income ladder. The amount of money you say you would need is not only higher than what you actually have, but it seems that the “neighbours grass is always greener”. As the income differentials have opened in the last eight years this has created a general backward trend in subjective well-being. But there is still a lot of variability.
Another example would be the big difference within Europe in the way that subjective quality of life varies over the course of an individual’s life. Some of it may be a biological/societal thing. When you start your adult life, you are satisfied with your life. When you reach the age of 30-35, your satisfaction goes down and for some reason, around 60 it goes up again. This is kind of a U-shape. However, most of the research on this was done in highly developed societies. In the new member countries you see a different picture. Here the life-satisfaction chart is not U-shaped, but downhill all the way. This is one interesting thing that requires some explanation. It is related not only to biological life but also to accumulated life experience, a differential aging regime that is affecting differently different societies within Europe.
What has changed in the last years?
It is a very sensitive measurement – it reflects the differential impact of the economic crisis and stagnation in Europe. It shows how divergent life experiences are; individuals’ subjective well-being is even more disparate and has wider inequalities than objective indicators might suggest.
Beside the European and country perspective Gallup is also engaged on the global scope (Gallup World Poll), but also covers the local level with its “Soul of the City” Program. What is the intention of this program?
On the level of the nation-state it is very difficult to use the indicators in a practical way. Quality of life is local, so local stakeholders can jointly affect the outcomes and design interventions whose effects can be measured. This is the level of policy intervention where people’s quality of life can really be improved with concrete policies.
How important is social well-being in the ‘Soul of the City’ project?
I would say that we are finding more and more that despite the individual level measurement, quality of life indirectly (but quantitatively measurably) depends on the well-being of the social context and the perceived wellbeing of the community in which we live. We are defined by our social relations – the most important determinant to an individual’s well-being is not necessarily just work and health (the latter is also related to environment, of course) – but the quality of social networks-and whether or not we are lonely or can rely on friends and family.
How important is environmental quality, what are the measured elements?
We were able to work together with the OECD directly linking well-being to subjective perceptions of environmental quality as well as to the measured level of pollution as reported at various points in the city. For example, we asked a subjective question: how satisfied are you with the air quality? And then we compared these answers with physical ppm measures in the same areas. In general, there is a very strong correlation between those two. For various specific reasons, we got no linear correlation. For instance, in Downtown Austin people are very dissatisfied with air quality, but that could be due to the noise.
The expectations for the future are important for the felt or perceived current well-being or quality of life. How is this captured? How big is the role of expected trends on environmental quality?
What is really important for a functional society is for people to have hope that things will improve in the future, whether they are hoping for a more sustainable environment, a more livable city, better work arrangements, etc. This is exactly where Europe has depleted all the emotional capital it had. What we find in our own measurements, especially with Gallup’s World Poll is that the crisis in this sense is not a global but a more specifically European problem. It is a crisis of a quality of life — people sense that some of the most important elements of their past and current life might become unattainable in the future, and alternative models for rearranging our lives meaningfully have not yet emerged.
With polls you measure the current well-being/quality of life. Measuring the long-term sustainability of our objective or perceived well-being/quality of life goes probably beyond your realm. Do you have any suggestions/proposals/
Well – in a sense we attempt to approach them by asking people about various aspects of their lives, including how they envisage their lives changing in the future – how the next generation will deal with problems, etc. Just last month, we have done a survey in six countries where we asked if the next generation will have a better chance of having a meaningful job/ an income on which they can live / time for social relations / more chance of having leisure time in order to have a work-life-balance / adequate retirement. What we see is that in Europe – and this is different from China and Africa – in Europe it appears that people are giving up, in some sense. We have measured this in different ways, and I think of it as giving up “hope for the future.” And this is a clear and strong negative driver of the way people evaluate their present quality of life as well. Very few people trust in scientists, economists or politicians or large institutions like banks. The relation between level of trust and subjective wellbeing is strong and measureable. Europe is divided along those lines as well but it is the only continent where people think that the next generation will be worse off than the present one.
* Alec Gallup (1928-2009) was the son of the founder and former president of the Gallup Poll.
We would like thank Robert Manchin for this insightful interview.
For more information on the work of the Gallup Organisation Europe, readers are invited to visit the website www.gallup-europe.be.
“Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising,… the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl… Yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; our wisdom nor our learning; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968.
A global poll released on 29 May has revealed that the public around the world remains strongly in favour of complementing GDP with a broader measure of national progress.
The study surveyed 10,845 adults across 11 countries. It shows that more than two-thirds, 68% of citizens on average, in the countries surveyed favour complementing GDP with a broader indicator embracing health, social and environmental statistics as well as economic ones. 23% would rather retain a focus on money-based economic statistics.
The survey was conducted for the first time in 2007 for the beyond GDP conference and again in 2010. This year’s results show that while globally the proportion favouring going ‘beyond GDP’ has not changed since 2010, there were some significant shifts in individual countries. The proportion of the public favouring measuring national progress using non-economic factors grew significantly in China (up by 12 points to 80%), the UK (up 11 points to 81%) and Australia (up 10 points to 81%). These three countries now have the largest proportions favouring a ‘beyond GDP’ approach. India (where 44% want to see a new system), Kenya (43%) and Germany (57%) are the most sceptical of change.
In 2010, Germany and Brazil were with the countries with the largest margins favouring a new system of measuring national progress. But this year 34 percent in Germany and 32 percent in Brazil now prefer keeping a focus on money-based statistics. Sam Mountford, Director at GlobeScan, considers that the shift in public opinion in some countries like Germany and Brazil may be linked to the media coverage of public indebtedness and economic stagnation in parts of Europe.
Despite small changes, these findings seem to broadly corroborate the 2011 Eurobarometer survey on Attitudes of European citizens towards the environment published in August 2011. When asked about how progress should be measured, a majority of Europeans considered that progress should be measured equally on social, environmental and economic criteria (55%). A high proportion of Europeans also thought that it should mostly be evaluated just on social and environmental criteria (18% compared with 15% who believed it should be evaluated mostly on economic criteria).
The results for Germany are somewhat surprising as in the 2011 Eurobarometer poll only 13 percent of German respondents considered that mostly economic criteria, such as GDP, should be used to measure progress. Thus, while the financial crisis and economic stagnation in Europe might have slightly increased support to money-based indicators as a measure of progress in some European countries, on average support worldwide remains relatively low at about one quarter of respondents. Overall, there is still broad public support of around two thirds of respondents to measures of progress including dimensions such as health, education, environment and overall quality of life.
Read the full press release
Austria has established a set of indicators consisting of 26 headline indicators for assessing sustainable development that also provides information about prosperity, quality of life and well-being of the Austrian population. The current indicator report reveals a favourable development for most indicators. As an example unemployment rates have decreased in the last three years, and GDP, purchasing power and household income have increased compared to the EU. In recent years even the trend for life expectancy, education and the expenditure on research and experimental development is positive. However, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions could not be lowered.
Download the report (in German, pdf, 5.4 MB)
This first report sets out a framework that will help natural capital to be hard wired into economic decision making in the United Kingdom and highlights the work the Committee will undertake over the coming year so that decision-makers can better understand which natural assets are critical to the wellbeing of citizens.
Read the full report (pdf, 1.09 MB)
Despite the controversy surrounding the results in general, the well-being and progress indicators developed by the German Study Commission “Growth, Well-being and Quality of Life” were praised as being one of the most tangible successes of the final report. The report proposes ten headline indicators, including nine “warning lights” and an “indicator lamp,” which can be used to inform in the future about prosperity, social welfare, participation and the state of the environment in Germany. This highlights the trade-offs and ensures that policy makers justify their decisions.
Access a short article on the results on the German Government’s website (in German)
The first “BES 2013” (Benessere Equo e Sostenibile) report on “Equitable and Sustainable Well-being” in Italy launched by the National Council for Economics and Labor (Cnel) and the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat) analyzed the levels, time trends and distribution of 12 dimensions of current well-being. The effects of the economic crisis are found in various components. For example, ‘work and life balance’ typically tends to suffer at times of high unemployment and inequality in the access to employment. The dimension ‘economic well-being’ experiences higher poverty and deprivation. Nevertheless the level of overall life satisfaction remains high, though this fell in the last year. The report also found that people from the South are disadvantaged compared with people from the North and Central parts of Italy in most of the areas considered (e.g. lower life expectancy, lower level of education, higher unemployment rate, weaker social networks, poorer quality of social services).
Read a summary (pdf, 1MB)
Long-term trends in Quality of Life
e-Frame Summer School on measurement of well-being and social progress