Two surveys have been released looking at the quality of life in cities and the levels of happiness of their residents. The first is a three-yearly Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission focusing on 83 European cities/conurbations. This survey finds that, despite growing concerns about immigration, terrorism and stagnant real incomes, levels of satisfaction have remained stable since the 2012 survey. In all except six cities, at least 80% of respondents say that they are satisfied to live in their city. The highest scores (above 98%) are in the north of Europe.
The second is the 2016 Quality of Life Survey (an annual survey) by the consultancy firm, Mercer. This looks at cities worldwide, particularly from the perspective of employees of multinational companies being placed abroad. The survey found that the top ten cities by quality of life include seven in Europe, and that the five safest cities in the world are all in Europe.
So what is it that makes the quality of life so high in many European cities, especially those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia? Is it that income per head is higher in these cities? In other words, is the quality of life related to GDP?
The answer is only loosely related to GDP. What seems more important is people’s income relative to other people and whether their income relative to other people is rising.
But people regard the quality of life in cities as depending on other factors than simple relative income. One factor common across all cities is household composition. People are least happy if they live on their own.
Other factors include: a feeling of safety; how well integrated different ethic and social groups are felt to be; the quality of public transport; the cleanliness of the city; health care provision and social services; the quality of schools and other educational establishments; sports facilities; cultural facilities; parks and other public spaces; the quality of shops, restaurants and other retail outlets; the quality and price of housing; the ease of getting a job; trust in fellow citizens; environmental factors, such as air quality, noise, traffic congestion and cleanliness; good governance of the city. The top three issues are health services, unemployment and education and training.
Although cities with higher incomes per head can usually afford to provide better services, there is only a loose correlation between income per head and quality of life in cities. Many of the factors affecting quality of life are not provided by the market but are provided publicly or are part of social interaction outside the market.
Happiness in Europe The Economist (25/2/16)
Happiness in Europe: What makes Europeans happy? It depends on where they live The Economist (27/2/16)
Rating Europe’s Most and Least Happy Cities CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan (9/2/16)
Europe’s Nicest Cities Aren’t Its Happiest Ones Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (2/2/16)
Vienna named world’s top city for quality of life The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (23/2/16)
Vienna named world’s best city to live for quality of life, but London, New York and Paris fail to make top rankings Independent, Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith (23.2.16)
The world’s most liveable cities: London and Edinburgh rank in top 50 The Telegraph, Soo Kim (23/2/16)
Quality of Life in European Cities 2015 Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016)
Quality of Life in European Cities 2015: Individual Country Reports Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016) (This may take a short while to download.)
Quality of life in European Cities 2015: Data for Research Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016)
2016 Quality of Living Rankings Mercer (23/2/16)
Western European Cities Top Quality of Living Ranking Mercer, Press Release (23/2/16)
- Why, do you think, is the quality of life is generally higher in (a) most northern European cities than most southern and eastern European ones; (b) most European cities rather than most north American ones?
- To what extent is (a) absolute real income per head; (b) relative real income per head an indicator of quality of living in cities?
- Why, do you think, are Italians less satisfied with the quality of life in their cities than residents of other western European countries?
- What factors affect your own quality of living? To what extent do they depend on the city/town/village/area where you live?
- Look at the list of factors above that affect quality of life in a given city. Put them in order of priority for you and identify any other factors not listed. To what extent do they depend on your age, your background, your income and your personal interests and tastes?
- Identify a particular city with which you are relatively familiar and assume that you were responsible for allocating the city’s budget. What would you spend more money on, what less and what the same? Provide a justification for your allocation.
- Discuss the following passage from the Bloomberg article: “What is striking is that there appears to be a correlation between those who report high levels of satisfaction and those who view foreigners in their city as an advantage. Conversely, respondents who complained loudest about transportation, public services, safety and other issues tended to view the presence of foreigners far less favorably.”
GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.
As the article states:
Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country
So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).
Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?
Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:
The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.
HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).
The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.
You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.
The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.
Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)
- What does GDP measure?
- How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
- How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
- What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
- What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
- Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
- Can money buy happiness?
- Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?
The following link is to a video charting the growth of China and the UK over the past 200 years and projecting forward to 2014. The video is from Gapminder, a site that allows you to compare countries’ performance in terms of a large range of economic and social indicators.
The introduction to this video states, “200 years ago, United Kingdom was a leading nation of the world – both in regard to health and economy. In this video, Hans Rosling details UK’s 200-year journey, to present time, and also shows that China, in the coming five years, will narrow the gap to UK faster than ever.”
Crisis narrows China–UK gap Hans Rosling, Gapminder (2/6/09)
- Why has the gap in GDP per head narrowed between the China and the UK?
- Why is the gap likely to narrow further over the next five years?
- Identify the factors that will determine how much the gap is likely to narrow in this period.
GDP is quite a good measure of a nation’s production of goods and services, but it doesn’t include many other factors relating to the standard of living in an economy and for this reason, various other measures of living standards have been developed. However, there is also another issue with GDP and that relates to how best to measure a country’s economic performance. Should we use GDP per head or GDP growth? Population changes can significantly distort economic welfare and so do need to be taken into account. The article below from The Economist looks at these issues in depth and considers the best way to measure economic performance.
Grossly distorted picture The Economist (13/3/08)
||Explain how GDP per head can fall while economic growth is rising.
||Explain why the use of GDP per head as a measure of economic performance may lead to the definition of recession being flawed.
||Assess the principal factors that result in economic growth and GDP per head rising together.
In the 1990s UK living standards were estimated to be 4% below those of the USA, 33% less than in Germany and 26% lower than those in France. However, faster economic growth in the past two decades has, according to Oxford Economics, led to average incomes overtaking those in the USA and rising some 8% more than those of France and Germany.
UK living standards outstrip US Times Online (6/1/08)
…but at least we’ve got one up on the Yanks Guardian (6/1/08)
||Explain the difference that the value of sterling makes to the measure of the standard of living.
||“With an adjustment made for this “purchasing power parity”, the average American has more spending power than his UK counterpart and pays lower taxes”. Define what is meant by purchasing power parity (PPP). Why does the standard of living need to be measured at PPS rates?
||Discuss the principal factors that have led to the increase in the standard of living in the UK.