Wellbeing and Dissatisfaction in Queensland

By Dow, Geoff | Social Alternatives, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Wellbeing and Dissatisfaction in Queensland


Dow, Geoff, Social Alternatives


Alternative indicators of wellbeing are currently much-discussed. The relative positioning of national living standards is clearly dependent on the measures of prosperity, happiness and so on chosen. Such differences reflect interpretive difficulties common to all advanced societies, where evolutionary transformations seem to have weakened conventional understandings among both analysts and policy-makers. In Queensland some evidence for the ambiguities can be evinced from a recent survey of wellbeing. The results suggest that the contemporary discontent with politics has become an intellectual issue.

Dissatisfaction with indicators of wellbeing has been emerging for some time. Per capita income and growth of national income (GDP) have been used not because anyone thought they were complete measures of living standards but because they were convenient, being based on readily available and internationally comparable statistics. As measures of material standards, they are not uninformative; but just as they cannot be used to compare rich and poor societies (countries with different levels of development), they miss many of the non-material (or non-economic) contributions to modern affluence, or the lack of it. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been publishing and improving its own 'Human development index' during recent decades. This combines data on health and education with income and thus provides a more inclusive basis for assessing policies and achievements, even in rich societies. The table below shows how country rankings vary dependent on the indicators chosen. Norway enjoys high standards of living no matter how they're measured; Australia ranks better if health and education are reckoned in addition to individual and national incomes; countries like Singapore fare worse if social attainments and inequality are included; and other subtle changes (the relative positions of the UK and the USA) probably confirm popular perceptions of conditions in these societies, that is, that material affluence is compromised by failures in other respects. Clearly, this UNDP index will be augmented in the future - hopefully by taking environmental conditions, inequalities, social exclusion and political capacities into account.

But even at this stage, the recorded cross-national variations are sufficient to suggest that affluence, prosperity, wellbeing and happiness are affected by multiple, and unusual, aspects of society and politics.

Notwithstanding global concerns of the type depicted in the table, contemporary social science provides other reasons for invoking a widened conception of social accomplishment. Comparative political economy, for example, has shown that economic growth is only poorly correlated with employment or unemployment. So even if we do value increasing levels of affluence, it is important to recognise that growth is not always employment-generating, it is not sufficient for prosperity. During the decades of the 'long recession', after 1974, Australia experienced comparatively high economic growth but also comparatively high unemployment; some countries recorded simultaneously low growth with low unemployment. Therefore, other factors, such as industry policies - which are typically opposed by orthodox economists because of their allegedly negative effect on efficiency - managed to have positive outcomes for this aspect of affluence. The political implication is that we should focus on substantive objectives (employment and employment-generating activity) directly, rather than proxies (rates of increase in income). Of course the quality (not just the level) of employment is also critical, with Australia facing one of the world's highest levels of non-standard and precarious employment (about one- quarter of the total). Availability of part-time employment is often desired, but in Australia, there is significant 'underemployment' (more than twice the registered unemployment figure). …

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