Statistics and Data Directorate

How’s Life? 2020 publication - Launch event and policy panel


Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

9 March 2020 - Paris, France

(As prepared for delivery)



State Secretary Ruuth, dear panellists, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to launch the OECD’s How’s Life? 2020 edition.

At the OECD, we measure a lot of things. But there is nothing more important to measure for policy-makers than people’s well-being. This begs a rather fundamental question: How are we doing? Or as we say at the OECD, “How’s Life?

And it is quite paradoxical that we present this report at a time when the world community is confronted with the risks, the uncertainty and the fear of a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 is revelatory of the great importance of health, and of health policies for people’s well-being.

It is a reminder of the complexity of well-being economics, and of the vulnerability of a highly interconnected world. It is a cue to the strategic relevance of multinational co-operation!

Let’s go to the results of this reports, starting with some good news.


Average well-being levels are rising

Despite the daily onslaught of worrying news stories, life is getting better for the typical OECD resident.

Let me give you a few examples. Since 2010: 

  • Life expectancy has increased by 14 months on average;

  • Adult employment rates are up by nearly 5 percentage points, and household disposable income has grown by 6%, cumulatively;

  • The share of people living in overcrowded housing has fallen by two and a half percentage points; and

  • People are living happier, safer lives: across OECD countries, homicide rates have fallen by one quarter, road deaths are down by 20%, and average life satisfaction is slowly climbing upwards.

These are encouraging numbers! Yet, we must remember that not all OECD countries face the same realities. And people in those countries also face very different life experiences.


Disparities in well-being remain a critical issue

Striking economic and social inequalities persist in most OECD countries. Despite gains in material conditions on average, income inequalities have barely changed since the historically high level reached in 2010.

Also, although the battle for gender parity is strongly growing, it remains a distant goal.

And debt, disconnection and despair continue to hold well-being back:

  • Over one-third of people in OECD countries are financially insecure. This means that they would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo three months of their income. Add to this the 12% of people in OECD countries already living in relative income poverty, and you have nearly half the population living precariously.

  • Across OECD countries, people spend only around six hours per week interacting with friends and family. This is not a lot. And while little data exists on trends in this area, the existing data shows signs of decline. People reportedly spend almost half an hour less per week with family and friends than they used to.

  • Actually, 1 in 11 people say they do not have relatives or friends they can count on for help in times of need. And for older people, the likelihood of lacking social support is almost three times higher.

  • Too many people in OECD countries struggle with low subjective well-being: 7% of people report very low levels of life satisfaction, and a significant minority (13%) experience more negative than positive feelings in a typical day.

The toll of “deaths of despair” from suicide, acute alcohol abuse and drug overdose - while still a small share of overall deaths across OECD countries - is three times higher than road deaths, and six times higher than deaths from homicide.

How’s Life? also points to important risks across natural, economic and social systems that threaten well-being in the future.

The current and fast-spreading coronavirus epidemic is just the latest disruption bringing profound threats to well-being. Not only to our health, but also to social connectedness and social capital, and to people’s incomes and livelihoods.

This is especially true for those in precarious jobs with insufficient safety nets to catch them if they were not able to go to work.

Just last week, our Interim Economic Outlook spelt out the scale of the possible economic impacts of the virus, and the actions governments must take to protect the most physically and financially vulnerable.

The coronavirus serves as a powerful reminder of how rapidly risks can spread in our globalised world. We appreciate the importance of having a well-functioning health care system when these risks strike.

But to secure future well-being, there is no alternative but to build up long-term protections and readiness against these risks.

  • We also face grave risks to our climate, and our biodiversity. OECD countries are timidly clawing back on greenhouse gas emissions, but continue to consume more of the earth’s materials per year. This means that our material footprints per capita continue to rise, while barely 11% of our total energy needs are met through renewable sources.

  • Nearly two-thirds of people in OECD countries are exposed to the health risks linked with high levels of fine particulate pollution. While air quality has improved on average since 2010, in 10 of the OECD countries more than 99% of their population is exposed to dangerous levels.

  • And the risks extend into our social and economic systems. Even if the average trust in government has actually risen by 3 percentage points since 2010, trust continues to fall in some countries where it is already low. Overall, fewer than half the OECD population trust their government, and only one-third feel they have a say in what the government does. Additionally, inclusive decision-making suffers from the fact that, on average, only one-third of our parliamentarians are women.

Key priorities going forward

The evidence provided by How’s Life? 2020 can lead governments to act and reshape their policy making in many fundamental ways. Several national and subnational governments are transforming their approach by applying a well-being lens. And we know that our work on well-being indicators has helped some of them advance this transformation.

New well-being metrics are used to shape long-term strategies (for example, in Slovenia or Scotland), to inform budgeting (New Zealand, France and Italy), or to evaluate the results of policies (as the United Kingdom does through its What Works Centre for Wellbeing). The OECD will accelerate its efforts to leverage well-being policy practices and catalyse the change towards people-centred policies.

Indeed, putting people’s well-being at the centre is the only way to address some of the most pressing challenges. The fair green transition; the quest for more inclusive forms of economic growth; the need to navigate the societal shifts brought by the digital age by ensuring decent work and good quality jobs for all.

These will be the key themes addressed by our Ministerial Council Meeting on “Digital, Green and Inclusive”, which will chart a path forward on sustainable growth and well-being. The MCM will also assess the progress made on the Beyond GDP Measurement Agenda, and suggest new directions for moving this Agenda faster and more ambitiously.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

What is economics for if not to improve people’s lives? What is economic policy for if not to build more prosperous but also inclusive and cohesive societies? The ultimate purpose of policies is to raise the quality and wellbeing of people’s lives. Let’s not forget this crucial link.

The OECD will keep helping governments to enhance people’s well-being, so that next time somebody asks them “How’s Life”, they feel proud of the answer.



See also:

OECD work on Statistics


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