“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities. A decade after the global financial crisis, the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) points to a world still struggling to recover from the downturn, even while various indicators such as life expectancy show more positive signs.
The Paris-based organization’s latest “How’s Life?” report of 35 countries paints a mixed picture of citizens’ satisfaction among its advanced economy members, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand in the Asia-Pacific region.
While average annual earnings have risen by a cumulative 7 percent across the OECD nations since 2005, that is still only half the growth rate of the prior decade, indicating the slow pace of global recovery.
Similarly, while average life expectancy has increased by nearly two years over the past decade and more people have jobs, long-term unemployment has risen and job insecurity has risen by a third.
This has resulted in lower life satisfaction, reduced voter turnout at elections and declining trust in government, as seen perhaps in the growing support for populist political movements in Western democracies.
Only 38 percent of respondents said they had confidence in their government, a drop of 4 percentage points since 2006.
“The latest ‘How’s Life?’ report provides yet further evidence that the scars of the crisis have not healed. Many people feel that the benefits unleashed by openness and globalization are not reaching them and their governments are failing to respond to their needs,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.
Japan: Safety First
Despite Japan’s international image as one of the world’s safest countries (Tokyo has been rated as the world’s safest city), safety ranked as the top concern of Japanese users of the “Better Life” index, followed by health and life satisfaction.
Yet the overall data showed mixed results for Asia’s second-largest economy. At 74 percent, Japan’s employment rate placed above the OECD average of 67 percent, with the East Asian nation also having one of the lowest levels of job insecurity.
Household disposable income has risen by 7 percent since 2005, while the employment rate is also 5 percentage points higher and the long-term jobless rate has fallen.
The data also revealed improved environmental quality, strong social connections, and a high level of personal security, with some 71 percent of respondents feeling safe when walking alone at night.
Nevertheless, compared to other OECD nations, job strain in Japan remains high, with both average earnings and household disposable income below the OECD average.
The gap between Japan’s top and bottom tier in earnings remains smaller than other OECD nations, but the gender gap is high, with women earning almost 40 percent less than their male counterparts.
While life expectancy at birth is the OECD’s highest at 84 years, only 35 percent of Japanese perceive their health as “good” or “very good,” almost half the average. Voter turnout and the percentage of adults who consider they have a say in what their government does both rank in the bottom third.
South Korea: Better Life Wanted
South Koreans are looking for a better life judging from the data, with citizens of Asia’s fourth-largest economy putting life satisfaction at the top of the list, followed by safety and health.
Although household disposable income has risen by 23 percent since 2005, income and wealth remain below the OECD average, along with earnings and the employment rate. While labor market insecurity is low, the incidence of job strain among employees is among the highest in the economic grouping.
Similar to Japan, life expectancy at birth is high at 82 years, yet barely a third of Koreans perceive their health to be “good” or “very good.”
The nation’s levels of social support and environmental quality, particularly air quality, are among the worst in the OECD.
South Korea also has the second-highest level of vertical inequality in earnings among OECD members, with those at the top earning around four to five times more than those at the bottom.
However on the plus side, housing has become more affordable since 2005 despite increased household debt, with the share of household disposable income spent on housing falling by 2.1 percentage points.
Voter turnout rose to 77 percent in the 2017 presidential poll, up 14 points from 2007, reflecting a high level of civic engagement following a period of political turbulence.
Aussies Seek Work-Life Balance
The Lucky Country’s laidback image appears to have eroded, with Australian users of the “Better Life” index rating work-life balance as their top concern ahead of health and life satisfaction.
Nevertheless, on a range of indicators, the world’s 12th largest economy is ahead of the pack, including in household disposable income and household wealth, which have both risen over the past decade.
Yet despite good performances in jobs and earnings, Aussies have fallen below the OECD average in work-life balance. This is reflected in data showing 30 minutes less time off than their peers overseas and with more than 13 percent of employees regularly working 50 hours or more per week.
Labor market insecurity has also remained at its crisis peak, while long-term unemployment has doubled since 2007. A housing boom in Sydney and Melbourne has also seen housing costs rising, albeit by just a single percentage point overall.
Despite a comparatively low homicide rate, only 64 percent of Aussies feel safe walking alone at night, compared to the OECD average of 69 percent.
Overall though, life satisfaction has remained “broadly stable” and at relatively high levels, helped by high rankings for self-reported health status and rising life expectancy.
Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealanders ranked life satisfaction, health, and education as their top three priorities, despite generally positive readings relative to other OECD nations.
The nation of 4.7 million has higher employment and lower long-term jobless rates than the OECD average, while benefiting from lower levels of labor market insecurity and job strain. Real earnings have risen by 14 percent from a decade ago, with household income also increasing.
Reported social support is also among the highest in the OECD, while the nation’s environmental quality rates strongly.
However, similar to Australia, although the homicide rate is low, only 65 percent of Kiwis reported feeling safe walking alone at night.
Housing affordability has also worsened, with the proportion of income spent on housing costs rising to 26.2 percent in 2014, up from 25.8 percent in 2005.
Women also fare worse than men on such indicators as safety, educational attainment and unemployment, while young people are almost four times more likely to be jobless.
Nevertheless, life satisfaction overall has remained at relatively high levels over the past decade, as seen in the nation’s political stability up until the recent poll. A high 43 percent of Kiwis said they had a say in what their government does, compared to the OECD average of 33 percent.
Describing the overall results as a wake-up call, the OECD’s Gurria said: “The urgent challenge for policymakers is to find ways to engage effectively with all citizens, work to improve their well-being and help restore their trust. We need to ensure that growth and development are truly inclusive and translate into better lives, without leaving anyone behind.”
For a world still struggling to recover its pre-crisis growth momentum, the latest report should give Asia-Pacific policymakers plenty of food for thought on improving citizens’ lives, amid growing discontent with politics as usual.