While there’s been much worry of late that the economy isn’t growing fast enough to get unemployment down, it remains true that our economic performance since the global financial crisis has been the envy of most other rich countries.
But it’s old news that, while economic growth matters for employment – especially with our immigration-fuelled population growth – gross domestic product is a quite inadequate measure of the nation’s wellbeing.
No doubt it was such criticism that, in 2002, prompted the Bureau of Statistics to introduce a four-yearly “general social survey” of about 13,000 households to give us more information on how Australians are faring from a personal and social perspective.
The bureau has now released the results of its fourth survey, for 2014. So what is this more humanistic second guess telling us about whether we’re making progress?
On the face of it, we’re doing fine. Look deeper, however, and cracks are apparent.
The survey measured our “subjective wellbeing” by asking people to assess their overall satisfaction with life – not how they feel at the moment, or how they feel about particular aspects of their life – on a scale of nought to 10.
Our average answer was 7.6, which is significantly higher than the average of 6.6 for all the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It was also up on what we said four years ago.
But the most useful thing to note is the categories of people whose ratings were well below the nationwide average: people with a disability (7.2), one-parent families with children (7.0), the unemployed (6.8) and people with a mental health problem, 6.6. Governments wanting to raise the nation’s wellbeing now know where to start.
And when the bureau delved deeper, areas of slippage became apparent. One important factor affecting us that’s ignored in the calculation of GDP – and in the thinking of most economists, politicians and business people – has been dubbed “social capital”.
Social capital is seen as a resource available to both individuals and communities, arising from such things as networks of mutual support, reciprocity and trust. You can break it down into more measurable components, such as community support, social participation, trust and trustworthiness, the size of people’s networks and people’s ability to have some control over issues important to them.
There’s plenty of research showing these things are strongly linked to the wellbeing of individuals and communities. But the survey reveals all is not well with various aspects of our social capital.
One indicator of how much we support each other is the amount of voluntary work we do for organisations. This has declined for the first time since the bureau began measuring it in 1995.
By 2010, the proportion of people aged over 18 who were volunteering had reached 36 per cent. But by last year it had fallen back to 31 per cent. There’s also been a decline in the proportion of people providing informal help to neighbours and the like.
Voluntary work not only helps the people who are helped, of course, it also helps increase the wellbeing of the helpers. Not a good sign.
On social participation, the survey shows people are now less likely to be involved in social groups such as sport or physical recreation, arts or heritage groups and religious groups.
Civic participation – involvement in a union, professional association, political party, environmental or animal welfare group, human or civil rights group, or even a body corporate or tenants’ association – is also down.
Of course, as the bureau notes, the way people meet and interact is changing. Some people suggest that young people in particular prefer to engage in politics by means of online activism – joining online advocacy groups or using social media to collect and disseminate information.
Other ways people support each other have been stable. In 2014, the proportion of people caring for someone with a disability, illness or old age was 19 per cent, little changed from previous years.
The proportion of people providing support to relatives living outside the carer’s home, 31 per cent, was also little changed. This is likely to reflect the ageing of the population.
Last year nearly everyone – 95 per cent – felt able to get support from outside their home in a time of crisis, unchanged from earlier years. Similarly, weekly electronic contact with family and friends by telephone, text message or video link remained high at 92 per cent.
By contrast, face-to-face contact fell from 79 per cent to 76 per cent.
And people were less likely than they were in 2010 to feel able to have a say within their community all or most of the time – 25 per cent compared with 29 per cent.
There’s been no change in the proportion of people agreeing that most people can be trusted – 54 per cent – but, to me, that seems a lot lower than it should be.
On the question of work-life balance, Australians are feeling time-poor, with 45 per cent of women and 36 per cent of men saying they were always or often pressed for time. This is higher than for other rich countries.
We may be doing better in the GDP stakes than most other advanced countries are, but we seem to be paying a high social price for our greater material success.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 8 July 2015.