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Quality of life much more than standard of living

By Richard Eckersley - posted Monday, 2 October 2017


A rising standard of living is the benchmark for a better life.

It is commonly measured as per-capita income or GDP. This reflects not just how much money we earn on average, but also what money buys, including better housing, healthcare and education.

Quality of life is about much more. It is the degree to which people enjoy the living conditions (social, economic, cultural and environmental) that are conducive to total wellbeing (physical, mental, social and spiritual).

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In other words, quality of life is a matter of how people feel about their lives as well as the material conditions in which they live. Perceptions matter to our wellbeing.

In a new study, Melanie Randle and Leonie Miller, of the University of Wollongong, and I, examined people's levels of concern about a range of societal and personal issues characterising modern life, and the association between concern and personal stress. The study is based on a 2013 survey of over 2,000 people in four countries - the US, UK, Canada and Australia - but has only just been published.

Our study found that, on average, 49% of respondents across the four countries were moderately or seriously concerned about 19 personal issues, with health and wellbeing, family matters, and cost of living and financial security topping the list. On average, 41% were moderately or seriously concerned about 23 societal issues, with social and political issues ranking ahead of economic and environmental matters, followed by war and terrorism, and technological changes (crime and violence topped the list with 58% concerned; climate change ranked tenth with 44% concerned).

Higher concerns, especially personal concerns, were generally associated with higher personal stress; younger generations were more stressed than older generations.

The level and ranking of concerns may have changed since our survey, but recent studies have strengthened and updated the general picture of people's worries about their lives today and discontent with their societies. For example, two global surveys published in 2017 found that, overall, majorities of citizens believed 'the system' was not working, no longer served them, and favoured the rich and powerful. Corruption, globalisation and technological change were weakening trust in global institutions, one of the studies found, and there was growing despair about the future, and a lack of confidence in the possibility of a better life for one's family.

In our study, Americans were the most concerned on many of the societal issues, especially political and economic issues such as the state of national politics (65% concerned), political and official corruption (64%) and the risk of an economic depression (57%), where the percentages were about 20 points higher than for the least concerned country.

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Societal concerns generally increased with age. For example, 74% of Pre-boomer (those born in or before 1945) were concerned about the state of national politics, compared to 43% of Gen Y or Millennials (those born 1978-1994).

In contrast to societal concerns, there were few significant country differences with personal concerns, suggesting these transcend national boundaries to reflect modern life more broadly. And personal concerns decreased with age. While some of these differences, such as with financial security, education, and finding a job, are to be expected, others are surprising. For example, the percentages of Gen Y concerned about mental and emotional health (60%), failure or disappointment (58%), loneliness (53%), emptiness (50%) and death (48%) were about 20 points higher than for Pre-boomers.

The generational labels used in our study signify both different age groups and different generations; the study cannot distinguish between the two. The differences could simply reflect different life stages and pre-occupations. However, the relatively linear gradients in levels of personal concern across the groups suggest that they could, at least to some degree, reflect generational changes associated with modernisation.

Other research supports this possibility. For example, a 2012 study of changes in Finnish students' fears for the future between 1983 and 2007, found similar differences in adolescents over time that we found across ages. Fears about war, terrorism and environmental disasters fell, and those about work and education did not change substantially. However more personal fears rose, including fears of failure and making wrong choices, loneliness, accidents, health and death. The authors conclude that perceptions of risk have become more individualised, increasing a sense of uncertainty, uneasiness and insecurity.

So even personal concerns are shaped by changing social conditions; they tell us something about the quality of life of modern societies. In particular, the concerns reveal the costs of the emphasis of modern Western culture - and especially neoliberalism - on the material and the individual. This crowds out or overshadows the more subjective, existential, aspects of life that are crucial to identity, belonging and meaning in life, and so to people's wellbeing.

Findings like ours and those of other similar surveys challenge the orthodoxy that life is continuing to improve for most people. They foreshadowed and help to explain the political upheavals of the past two years, including the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, and Britain's vote to leave the European Union, which caught almost all politicians and commentators by surprise.

Progress should be about improving quality of life, not standard of living. Yet the models and measures of progress we use - and which underpin our politics - neglect important aspects of quality of life, including public perceptions. When our governments and leaders ignore the public mood, we get what we have today.

At worst, this mismatch or disjunction will contribute to times of turmoil and chaos, and possibly derail our attempts to deal with more tangible global threats like climate change; at best, it will force the deeper debate about our lives and the future that we urgently need.

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The paper can be downloaded from www.richardeckersley.com.au.



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About the Author

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher. His work explores progress and wellbeing.

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