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How Was Life? 
Global Well-Being since 1820 
Introduction by 
Jan Luiten van Zanden 
(Utrecht University) 
2 October 2014
Cooperation of two projects 
• OECD: Better Life Initiative: multi-dimensional 
approach to well-being, 
resulting a.o. in the How’s Life? 
report 
• Clio Infra project, global network of 
economic historians to measure 
various dimensions of long-term 
evolution of world economy 1500- 
2010.
CLIO INFRA 
• Large ‘research infrastructural’ project funded by 
NWO 
• Universities of Utrecht, Groningen, Tuebingen, 
International Institute for Social History 
• Standardization historical statistics related to Global 
Inequality 1500-2010 
• Linked to International Economic History Associaiton 
(IEHA)
CLIO INFRA 
• Maddison project: historical national 
accounts; international team of experts 
• Similar collabs for human capital, demography, 
institutions, biological standard of living, 
sustainability, institutions, wages and prices, gender 
inequality, income inequality 
• Authors of the How Was Life? chapters 
• Open access: www.clio-infra.eu
Aim of cooperation 
• Present state-of-the-art estimates on various 
dimensions of development of well-being in world 
economy from 1820 to present (“GDP and beyond”) 
• Contribute to the discussion about the broadening 
of the welfare concept used to characterize socio-economic 
development 
• Indicate relevance of going “beyond GDP”, also in 
historical analysis
The importance of historical statistics
Dimensions covered in “How Was Life?” book 
Dimension Indicator(s) 
Economic standard of living GDP per capita 
Inequality Income inequality; Real unskilled 
wages 
Health Status Life Expectancy; Height 
Education and Skills Educational attainment 
Personal security Homicide 
Civic Engagement and Governance Political institutions 
Environmental Quality SO2; CO2; Species abundance 
Gender Inequality Various indicators + composite ind. 
Overall indicator of Well-Being Composite indicator (experimental)
Statistical Quality 
• Data for 25 major countries and another 100+ 
since 1820…. 
• Important issue of quality of underlying 
sources 
• Four levels of statistical quality indicated for 
each data point: based on credibility of 
source, accuracy of method and comparability 
across countries and over time
Some preliminary results 
• In general very strong correlation of each indicator with GDP 
per capita, 
• though less unequally distributed, in particular when 
composite indices are used (chapter 13) 
• Exceptions: low/negative correlations in Inequality, Security, 
and Environmental quality domains 
• For some indicators clear global trends (“technology”) as they 
improve over time even without GDP per capita growth
Correlation with GDP/c over time
World averages (compared with GDP/c)
W. European averages (compared with GDP/c)
East Asian averages (compared with GDP/c)
E. Europe + form. SU (compared with GDP/c)
World income inequality
Within-country income inequality
Gender equality: parliamentary seats
Gender Inequality index
GDP/c & life expectancy 
1930 
0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 
20 30 40 50 60 70 80 
pcGDP 
Life exp. (years) 
18201870 
1910 
1970 
2000
GDP/c & SO2 emissions 
1870 
1930 
0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 
0.00 0.05 0.10 0.15 0.20 
pcGDP 
ton SO2/cap 
1820 
1910 
1970 
2000
GDP/c & CO2 emissions 
1870 
0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 
pcGDP 
kton C/cap 
1820 
1910 1930 
1970 2000
GDP/c & democracy <1920 
18168070 
1850 
1840 
1830 
1910 
1900 
0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 
0 5 10 15 20 
pcGDP 
Polity2 
1820 
18188090
GDP/c & democracy >1910 
0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 
0 5 10 15 20 
pcGDP 
Polity2 
1920 
1930 
19149050 
1960 
1970 
1980 
1990 
2000
Composite variable/region 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
East Asia 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
East. Europe and form. SU 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
Latin America and Carib. 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
MENA 
CompI 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
South and South−East Asia 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
Sub−Saharan Africa 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
W. Europe 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−1 0 1 2 3 
W. Offshoots 
year
Two composite indicators 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
UNITED KINGDOM 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
ITALY 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
POLAND 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
UNITED STATES 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
BRAZIL 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
KENYA 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
CHINA 
1850 1900 1950 2000 
−3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 
decade 
q50 
INDIA 
Latent vm 
Unweighted 
Great Britain Italy Poland USA
Segmented relation per capita GDP & 
combined wellbeing indicators
“Great divergence”
Conclusions 
• Rich harvest of new data 
• Available October 3rd on 
OECD website. 
• Wealth of data available 
(StatLink & www.clio-infra. 
eu) 
• Future: move to 
microdata with Clariah 
project.

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How Was Life? Key Findings

  • 1. How Was Life? Global Well-Being since 1820 Introduction by Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University) 2 October 2014
  • 2. Cooperation of two projects • OECD: Better Life Initiative: multi-dimensional approach to well-being, resulting a.o. in the How’s Life? report • Clio Infra project, global network of economic historians to measure various dimensions of long-term evolution of world economy 1500- 2010.
  • 3. CLIO INFRA • Large ‘research infrastructural’ project funded by NWO • Universities of Utrecht, Groningen, Tuebingen, International Institute for Social History • Standardization historical statistics related to Global Inequality 1500-2010 • Linked to International Economic History Associaiton (IEHA)
  • 4. CLIO INFRA • Maddison project: historical national accounts; international team of experts • Similar collabs for human capital, demography, institutions, biological standard of living, sustainability, institutions, wages and prices, gender inequality, income inequality • Authors of the How Was Life? chapters • Open access: www.clio-infra.eu
  • 5. Aim of cooperation • Present state-of-the-art estimates on various dimensions of development of well-being in world economy from 1820 to present (“GDP and beyond”) • Contribute to the discussion about the broadening of the welfare concept used to characterize socio-economic development • Indicate relevance of going “beyond GDP”, also in historical analysis
  • 6. The importance of historical statistics
  • 7. Dimensions covered in “How Was Life?” book Dimension Indicator(s) Economic standard of living GDP per capita Inequality Income inequality; Real unskilled wages Health Status Life Expectancy; Height Education and Skills Educational attainment Personal security Homicide Civic Engagement and Governance Political institutions Environmental Quality SO2; CO2; Species abundance Gender Inequality Various indicators + composite ind. Overall indicator of Well-Being Composite indicator (experimental)
  • 8. Statistical Quality • Data for 25 major countries and another 100+ since 1820…. • Important issue of quality of underlying sources • Four levels of statistical quality indicated for each data point: based on credibility of source, accuracy of method and comparability across countries and over time
  • 9. Some preliminary results • In general very strong correlation of each indicator with GDP per capita, • though less unequally distributed, in particular when composite indices are used (chapter 13) • Exceptions: low/negative correlations in Inequality, Security, and Environmental quality domains • For some indicators clear global trends (“technology”) as they improve over time even without GDP per capita growth
  • 12. W. European averages (compared with GDP/c)
  • 13. East Asian averages (compared with GDP/c)
  • 14. E. Europe + form. SU (compared with GDP/c)
  • 19. GDP/c & life expectancy 1930 0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 pcGDP Life exp. (years) 18201870 1910 1970 2000
  • 20. GDP/c & SO2 emissions 1870 1930 0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 0.00 0.05 0.10 0.15 0.20 pcGDP ton SO2/cap 1820 1910 1970 2000
  • 21. GDP/c & CO2 emissions 1870 0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 pcGDP kton C/cap 1820 1910 1930 1970 2000
  • 22. GDP/c & democracy <1920 18168070 1850 1840 1830 1910 1900 0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 0 5 10 15 20 pcGDP Polity2 1820 18188090
  • 23. GDP/c & democracy >1910 0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 0 5 10 15 20 pcGDP Polity2 1920 1930 19149050 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
  • 24. Composite variable/region 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 East Asia 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 East. Europe and form. SU 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 Latin America and Carib. 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 MENA CompI 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 South and South−East Asia 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 Sub−Saharan Africa 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 W. Europe 1850 1900 1950 2000 −1 0 1 2 3 W. Offshoots year
  • 25. Two composite indicators 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 UNITED KINGDOM 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 ITALY 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 POLAND 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 UNITED STATES 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 BRAZIL 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 KENYA 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 CHINA 1850 1900 1950 2000 −3 −1 0 1 2 3 4 decade q50 INDIA Latent vm Unweighted Great Britain Italy Poland USA
  • 26. Segmented relation per capita GDP & combined wellbeing indicators
  • 28. Conclusions • Rich harvest of new data • Available October 3rd on OECD website. • Wealth of data available (StatLink & www.clio-infra. eu) • Future: move to microdata with Clariah project.

Editor's Notes

  1. OECD’s interest in well-being. To develop better policies we need to know what we mean by a better life… …and we need to be able to measure it. This is the role of the well-being.
  2. Most evidence for what well-being is points to something like this: People rather than the economic system Outcomes rather than inputs or outputs Both the level (averages) and distribution (inequalities) matter Both objective and subjective measures Both now (well-being) and in the future (sustainability)
  3. By the time of the 4th World Forum, held in Delhi in 2014, the situation had changed significantly. The OECD was producing multiple documents measuring well-being (How’s Life, the BLI) and establishing standards for measuring specific areas that were highly controversial back in 2004 (SWB) Other agencies – such as the UN and various NGOs – were also taking aspects of the Well-being Agenda increasingly seriously, and the public profile of well-being remains high.
  4. Most evidence for what well-being is points to something like this: People rather than the economic system Outcomes rather than inputs or outputs Both the level (averages) and distribution (inequalities) matter Both objective and subjective measures Both now (well-being) and in the future (sustainability)