In fact, Australia scores above average in almost all of the 11 well-being dimensions measured by the OECD Better Life Index. It does exceptionally well on the environment and health. Australians breathe some of the cleanest air, with far less of the tiny particulate matter that gets into the deepest part of the lungs than in many other countries–a PM10 level of only 13.1 micrograms per cubic metre, as opposed to the average of 20.1 micrograms for the OECD. They can expect to live up to 82 years of age, compared with an average of 80 years in the OECD. And as well as being healthy, they score highly on civic engagement, thanks largely to the compulsory voting system: 93% of Australians turned out to vote in the most recent general elections, the highest percentage in the OECD.
Australia’s regions are also happy. In fact, according to the OECD’s new Regional Well-Being, all eight Australian states rank among the best 20% of all 362 regions studied around the world in civic engagement, environment and income. And Canberra, the Capital Territory, ranks first in Australia, beating the other regions in six of the nine well-being dimensions. Even the low-performing regions still fare better than the OECD average in most of the well-being indicators.
But it is not a perfect score sheet. There is wide inequality between the Australian regions, especially in health and safety where the country ranks fourth and fifth worst in terms of disparities. Education is also a problem in some regions, as the share of workers with at least a secondary diploma living in the lowest performing Australian regions is 8 percentage points lower than the OECD average.
Perhaps the most surprising result of all is Australia’s low score in work-life balance. More than 14% of Australian employees work for more than 50 hours per week, much more than the OECD average of almost 9%. This hardly squares with the country’s reputation for an easy and leisurely lifestyle, a fact that has been picked up by the Australian users of the Better Life Index, ranking work-life balance as the most important factor for a better life.
Has Australia always been happy?
A recent OECD report, How Was Life?, shows that even in the 19th century, Australia was already the place to be. Along with western Europe, Canada and the United States, Australia profited greatly from the technological changes unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. As expected for a newly formed British colony, it had one of the lowest GDP per capita in the developed world of 1820, but was already flourishing in other aspects of well-being. Australians at the time were taller than people in Europe, reflecting better nutrition and less disease. Australia was, and still is, one of the safest places to live, even when involved in conflicts, such as the Second World War. And even back then it was one of the best countries for gender equality, as women in Australia were among the first in the world to gain the right to vote, and did not suffer from the wide gender gap in education that was present in most other developed countries up until the 1950s.
In short, while the sun and beaches probably contribute to Australians’ happiness, they have many other reasons to feel happy about their country.
OECD (2014), How’s Life in Your Region? Measuring Regional and Local Well-being for Policy Making, OECD Publishing, Paris.
van Zanden, J.L., et al. (eds.) (2014), How Was Life?: Global Well-being since 1820, OECD Publishing, Paris.
© OECD Observer No 300, Q3 2014