Getting beyond the usual 'how are we doing' statistics
In many areas, the United States was in the middle of the pack. America's only major shortfall was in work-life balance. Denmark was No. 1. We came in eighth from the bottom.
Special to The Seattle Times
Better life leaders1. Australia
3. United States
9. New Zealand
Source: OECD Better Life Index
In Nevil Shute's iconic 1957 novel "On the Beach," Australia is one of the few places left unscathed from a thermonuclear war.
But it doesn't take an apocalypse for the Land Down Under to come up on top. Australia leads the new Better Life Index compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The United States ranked third.
The OECD researched nearly a dozen topics of well-being to figure out how its 34 member countries, the world's most advanced nations, were faring in ways beyond conventional economic metrics, such as gross domestic product.
As the report states, "Ever since the OECD started out in 1961, GDP has been the main factor by which it has measured and understood economic and social progress. But it has failed to capture many of the factors that influence people's lives, such as security, leisure, income distribution and a clean environment.
"Is life really getting better? How can we tell? What are the key ingredients to improving life — is it better education, environment, health care, housing, or working hours? Does progress mean the same thing to all people or in all countries and societies?"
The Better Life Index is not an objective final word. Few Americans are ready to move to Australia. But neither is it one of those ubiquitous top 10 lists that proliferate in magazines and on websites. The research is more rigorous, using solid data from individual countries and the United Nations, as well as polling.
Australia ranks No. 19 among nation's in gross domestic product, which grew only 1.8 percent last year. It is benefiting from big demand from China for its natural resources. The nation is also Washington's 10th-largest trading partner. And it only has 22 million people, which may be an advantage in an overcrowded world, particularly for an advanced nation.
The OECD is reluctant to assign an undisputed top spot in its national performance index, which measures such things as housing, education, health, community, environment and work-life balance.
But Australia still comes out with the highest cumulative score. According to the report, "in general, Australians are more satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, with 74 percent of people saying they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc.) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc.).
The United States is a close third behind Norway. Housing and income ranked highest in the OECD, even though the report also notes that the top 20 percent of the population earns eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent.
We came in 11th in jobs, a sign of continued high unemployment but also an indication of the many advanced nations hurt worse by the Great Recession. But in job security, we ranked 27th.
In many areas, we're in the middle of the pack. America's only major shortfall was in work-life balance. Denmark was No. 1. We came in eighth from the bottom.
Still, this isn't surprising. Shifts in policy, technology, business practices and demographics have left most Americans with stagnant or little wage growth for more than 30 years. Our responses have been to work harder, send both spouses into the workforce, sometimes take multiple jobs — and go into debt.
The report notes that the United States is the only OECD country without a national paid parental-leave policy.
For all that, Americans were actually slightly more satisfied than Aussies about their lives here.
Now, if you're boiling mad at the report or curious, you can go to the OECD website (www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org) and create your own personal Better Life Index.
Want the best work-life balance? Denmark's your place. The safest country is Australia, but Canada and the United States are not far behind. Sweden is tops in the environment. But you can assign relative importance to 11 areas and see the leaders and laggards.
Individual preferences will always complicate sweeping conclusions about the good life. Some people live to work. Others embrace their inner slacker and happily trade higher income for more freedom and peace. I read about a couple choosing to be the last to remain in a polluted Kansas town; they like their home.
But the OECD report is a valuable benchmark. Previous-year comparisons are not available because the study added new data. It will be interesting to see where we stand next year.
I only wish we had a similar index for American states and cities.
Gloria Vanderbilt may have quipped, "People who say money can't buy happiness don't know where to shop," but beyond a certain point income doesn't ensure contentment. And reports on housing starts, new jobs, the stock market etc., while useful, don't tell us about our communities in full.
What gets measured gets done, or at least can guide constructive policy. I hope we're not past that as a nation.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jontalton.
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest