A long-term view on inequality

For international Blog Action Day, which this year focussed on income inequality, Brian Keeley from the OECD examines the evolution of inequality over time.

A time-traveller from 200 years ago would find our world almost unrecognisable. Our technologies and lifestyles would seem almost magical – motorcars, air travel, our obsession with smartphones. The visitor from the past would also notice enormous social shifts: Today, we live longer; most of us can read; many of us have a say in who governs us; and, in much of the world, women and men are treated pretty much equally.

Still, there’s one thing that mightn’t surprise our visitor too much: Even though poverty is not what it once was, humanity is still divided between haves and the have-nots.

But is the world today really more unequal than in 1820, a time when emperors still sat on the throne in China, when monarchs ruled much of Europe and when mass industrialisation was still in its infancy? If you’re hoping for a simple yes or no, prepare to be disappointed. As the OECD’s recently released How Was Life? report shows, the world today is both more unequal and about as unequal as it was back in 1820. It all depends on how you look at it.

Read more at oecdinsights.org 

Originally published on OECD Insights on 16 October 2014.

Useful links

Income inequality since 1820,” by Michail Moatsos, Joery Baten, Peter Foldvari, Bas van Leeuwen and Jan Luiten van Zanden (from How Was Life?, OECD 2014).

Mapping the history of wellbeing – Sue Kendall introduces How Was Life?

OECD work on inequality.


Economic data


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