The middle class has long been the backbone of prosperity and economic stability in developed countries. But the crisis is exert increasing pressure on this pillar of society. Does the middle class need saving?

©Darren Whiteside/REUTERS

Expect the issue of solidarity between generations to become a major policy challenge in the years ahead, and not just in OECD countries. Here’s why. 

©CEP

The search for measures of progress that might replace GDP is a timely and necessary one, but only a single metric will do the trick. 

The long road towards gender equality has arrived at greater educational attainment, higher female labour force participation, and advances in politics and business, but we haven’t reached the end yet. 

The average income of the richest 10% of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10%, up from seven times what it was 25 years ago. Even in more egalitarian countries, such as Germany and Sweden, the earnings of the richest are over six times higher than those of the poorest, compared with just over three in 1985. Inequality has narrowed in countries like Chile and Mexico, though the income gap between rich and poor is still 27 to 1, and in Brazil, which as this edition shows has implemented impressive programmes against poverty and inequality, the gap stands at 50 to 1. Clearly, the benefits of economic growth have not trickled down or been fairly distributed. 

©Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Some 16.3 million Brazilians (8.5% of the population) live on less than $1.50 per day, which by most international definitions indicates extreme poverty. However, thanks to the efforts of successive governments, including that of the current president, Dilma Rousseff, the country has made tremendous progress in reducing that poverty and tackling income inequality too. 

Half the world’s workforce, 1.5 billion working women and men, are in vulnerable employment. The global economic crisis has swelled the ranks of those whose jobs do not provide enough to meet basic needs, the “working poor”, by more than 100 million people, mainly women.

Martine Durand ©OECD

For most of the last century, progress in the conditions of our societies was often assessed through the compass of economic growth, or GDP. In recent years, however, both governments and citizens have come to recognise that GDP provides only a partial view of today’s economic and social conditions and of whether these conditions can be expected to last in the future. Better indicators are needed that take into account sustainability, equity and quality of life.

©Mark Armstrong

In October 2011, a high-level panel headed by the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, delivered a ground-breaking report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, arguing that everyone around the globe should receive a living income, guaranteed through transfers in cash or in kind, such as pensions for the elderly and persons with disabilities, child benefits, income support benefits and/or employment guarantees, and services for the unemployed and working poor. Martin Hirsch, a member of that panel, explains why this proposal for a more socially responsible globalisation can work. 

R.T.Erdogan ©M.Azakir/Reuters

Turkey’s efforts in the struggle against poverty and income inequality have met with much success. Today, the country stands out as a model in the region and beyond. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discusses these achievements and the country’s role in international co-operation. 

Peggy Hollinger

In many countries, the middle class is feeling squeezed, and the crisis has only made matters worse. What is behind this sentiment and what can be done to reverse it?

Danilo Türk ©UPRS

The current 30-year cycle of deregulation and uncompromising belief in the “invisible hand” of the market is coming to an end.
This is happening amid a serious financial and economic crisis that is often compared with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Civil unrest is spreading.

Peggy Hollinger

In many countries, the middle class is feeling squeezed, and the crisis has only made matters worse. What is behind this sentiment and what can be done to reverse it?

Have you ever had the feeling that economists and governments speak about wealth and growth in a way that doesn’t always chime with your own everyday experience?

Click to enlarge. By Stik, especially for the OECD Observer.

Most people would probably agree that female employment and maternity leave are related issues. But did you know that female employment rates are not always highest in countries where paid maternity leave is longest?

The OECD’s Your Better Life Index, launched at the 50th anniversary OECD Forum on 24 May, lets users from the general public weigh up the factors (initially from a list of 11) they feel matter most in assessing their well-being.

How willing are you to pay more for renewable energy? Judging by a survey we previewed in 2010 (see here for instance) and whose results have now been published, the answer is: not that much. Greening Household Behaviour shows that while people may change their habits if given the right incentives and information, they are not quite as ready to dip deeply into their pockets.

A few decades ago the poorest in society were most likely to be pensioners. Now children are taking over that mantle, as poverty in households with children rises in nearly all OECD countries. Indeed, families with children are more likely to be poor today than in previous decades, according to Doing Better for Families, a new OECD report.

Major sporting events can boost economies, while giving people a boost too. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, which were pulled off to great applause despite the odds, were no exception. How was it done, and what lessons did the organisers learn? We spoke with John Furlong, who headed up the organising committee responsible for the games.

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of a remarkable organisation which has brought a huge and, in many ways, immeasurable impact to the economic and social development not only of its members, but of the world community of nations.

The OECD allows policymakers to come together to identify best practices that shape our public policies. It allows us to compare and benchmark our performance, and learn from top performers. By participating in the OECD peer review process, we benefit from frank discussion among equals on our accomplishments and shortfalls in a variety of areas, from the economy to development policies. The objective and credible analysis provided by the OECD strengthens these discussions. Overall, Canada’s socio-economic performance is strong compared with the OECD. However, in order to improve further, we need to know where others are doing better and to learn how they are achieving these results.

How much more would you be willing to pay for renewable energy? Are environmental concerns a factor in how much you use your car? And are you really thinking about the environment when you buy organic food? All these questions, and more, are at the heart of the 2008 survey which forms the basis of Greening Household Behaviour. A part of the OECD’s Green Growth Strategy, this survey covered 10,000 households across ten OECD countries to determine how our day-to-day relationship with the environment may affect reforms, and is due for another round in 2011.

“[…] On behalf of the OECD, I express our profound sorrow at the enormous loss of life and extend our condolences to all those who have been affected by this terrible tragedy. At the same time, we admire the courage and resolve of the Japanese people in face of adversity, and we are confident that Japan will emerge from this disaster stronger and better.

A new kitchen can raise the value of any home, but in developing countries it can also save lives. That is why in 2010 the OECD’s very own staff charity, the War on Hunger Group, decided to contribute funding to fitting a new kitchen in the headquarters of AFENA, an NGO dedicated to looking after abandoned women and children, and based in Niger’s second city, Maradi.

We are celebrating the OECD’s 50th anniversary during the tail-end of the worst financial and economic crisis of our lifetimes. It’s a good moment to take stock and to ask the right questions. Why couldn’t we avoid the crisis? Were the policies and the policy mix we promoted the right ones, and how can we adjust these polices to new realities? What is more, are we doing enough to prevent another crisis? Are our economic theories, our models and our assumptions still appropriate? How should our organisation’s work be adapted so that we continue fulfilling our founding mission of promoting better policies for better lives?

The OECD, a pioneer in the quest to measure the progress and well-being of societies, is launching an exciting new initiative, incorporating Your Better Life Index. The initiative is not only a major step forward in assessing people’s true welfare, but involves people in the process too.

Strategic foresight is an essential tool in any government’s toolbox. It’s what enables policymakers to anticipate developments better, encouraging them to be more creative in reflecting on their options, and offering them more time to prepare and set in train their programmes. It is an area in which some governments excel, while others perform less well. It is also an area subject to much misunderstanding and confusion.

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