On Monday 17 June 2019, the RSS West Midlands local group held a meeting at the University of Warwick on 'How are we doing? Measuring personal and economic wellbeing', with speakers Sunny Valentineo Sidhu and Ed Pyle from the Office for National Statistics.
The talk began with Sunny Sidhu explaining the genesis of the interest in measures of wellbeing. He described what GDP is, what its deficiencies are and how, through the work of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress and others, there has been a recognition of the need for alternative measures, highlighting in particular some studies on the trends in mortality in the USA. He explained that in the UK, the process of addressing this challenge began in 2010 with the establishment of the Measuring National Wellbeing programme and its aim of monitoring and reporting on 'how the UK is doing'. For this purpose, both objective (eg unemployment) and subjective (eg happiness) measures are utilised, and Sunny introduced the dashboard developed by the ONS for monitoring the various aspects, with both personal and economic wellbeing measures.
At this point, Ed Pyle took over to give an insight into what the future of measuring wellbeing might look like, some of the methodology used, and what the results showed. He began by introducing ‘the capitals’ – human capital, social capital, and natural capital – all of which have value to society but may not be captured in classic economic measures. He gave a quick coverage of equality, showing a chart with various measures of inequality for the UK that showed steep ascent from the late 1970s until 1990 but have followed a slightly declining though volatile pattern since, and the current decile levels of income and wealth in the UK. He then moved on to describe some of the ONS work on personal wellbeing, showing an example of the question and answer format used as well as the characteristics considered. From there, the audience was asked to guess what seemed to be the major determinants of life satisfaction in the UK, eliciting a large spread of votes for the categories. He answered this question by showing a chart by different factors, highlighting the large impacts due to age, economic activity, and marital status, but most of all, of self-reported health. Some of these were looked at in more detail, and the impact of age in particular provoked discussion from the audience around the impact of the wealth of the baby boomer generation on this analysis.
The talk finished with a caution over the numbers presented, that they appeared to account for only around 20% of the variation in life satisfaction that is seen, and so it is an area of ongoing interest and research.