As 2012 comes to a close, marking the finish of a year of economic upheaval around the world (with no clear end in sight), the Economist Intelligence Unit posed the question: Which child born next year will be more likely to have a good quality-of-life? And, perhaps most importantly, what person entering adulthood in the 2030s will be gladdest to live where she or he lives? They call this the "born index” or "life satisfaction index," and it explains which countries lead the pack as the best place to be born in 2013.
America, which used to be number-one on this very same index back in 1988, has plummeted to number 16. It’s understandable in terms of our miserable healthcare system, growing social stratification and workplace policies; we hang out toward the bottom of the lists when it comes to maternal health, paid leave for parents or family sickness. And yes, we have zero mandatory vacation hours.
But there’s a lot more to this index. Here’s the methodology from the Economist Intelligence Unit. Readers may disagree with the importance of some of these (such as divorce rate):
- “material wellbeing" as measured by GDP per head (in $, at 2006 constant PPPS)
- life expectancy from birth
- quality of family life, based primarily on divorce rates
- state of political freedoms
- job security (measured by the unemployment rate)
- climate (measured by two variables: the average deviation of minimum and maximum monthly temperatures from 14 degrees Celsius and the number of months in the year with less than 30mm rainfall)
- Personal physical security ratings (based primarily on recorded homicide rates and ratings for risk from crime and terrorism)
- quality of community life (based on membership in social organizations)
- governance (measured by ratings for corruption)
- gender equality (measured by the share of seats in parliament held by women)
Let’s look at this year's life satisfaction index and see which countries -- some predictable, some surprising -- do better than the US on this particular scale.
Switzerland. "Boring" old Switzerland, with its pristine natural beauty, top infrastructure, wealth and social safety net comes out on top.
Here are some statistics about Switzerland from a separate measurement, the Better Life Index, which we wrote about earlier this year: 79% of working-age people in Switzerland have a paid job, above the OECD employment average of 66%. Some 85% of men are in paid work, and 87% of adults aged 25-64 have earned a high-school equivalent degree, and it’s a “a top-performing country in terms of the quality of its educational system.” When a new Swiss resident is born, his or her life expectancy reaches close to 83 years. All that mountain air and water seems to be nice for living standards, too: “97% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water.”
Australia and New Zealand. Oi! The land down under comes out on top, or second to the top, in the born index, for a number of reasons. With a high life expectancy and relatively high employment, civic and community participation are particularly high. According to the Better Life Index for Australia:
Concerning the public sphere, there is a strong sense of community and high levels of civic participation in Australia, where 97% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, higher than the OECD average of 91%. Voter turnout, a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, was 95% during recent elections.
Kiwis, ranked number seven on the list, share many of their Aussie neighbors' lifestyle high points, with a similarly robust level of public participation and sense of community and highly rated educational achievement. And Auckland comes only behind Zurich and Vienna as the world’s most liveable city, according to yet another of these indices, the Mercer Quality of Living surveys.
Scandinavian Countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, are all in the top 10.(Even Finland comes in at no. 11, ahead of the US.) This group of semi-socialist nations do exceptionally well in almost every ranking of this kind. That’s because it comes down to the numbers: workforces that do well without empyees killing themselves with work and a strong social safety net. Each day, Danes are able to spend about two-thirds of their hours sleeping, eating, taking care of themselves and chilling out, while Sweden has the most progressive family leave policies you can find, with a whole culture of stay-at-home dads who are encouraged to spend time with the stroller, thanks to national policy.
Singapore is one of the most consistently top-ranked Asian places to live, with an authoritarian government apparently offset by great healthcare, education and infastructure. Another city with fine infrastructure, Hong Kong, also made the list.
The Netherlands has a strong healthcare system and a complex social welfare state where collectives, co-ops, government and private industries mingle together to make sure each citizen is cared for. Back in 2009, Russel Shorto wrote a long piece for the New York Times about “going Dutch,” moving to the Netherlands. One thing he noted that’s particularly applicable to the Born Index? Childcare and help with giving birth:
The Netherlands has universal health care, which means that, unlike in the United States, virtually everyone is covered, and of course social welfare, broadly understood, begins at the beginning. In Julie and Jan’s case, although he was a struggling translator and she was a struggling writer, their insurance covered prenatal care, the birth of their children and after-care, which began with seven days of five-hours-per-day home assistance. “That means someone comes and does your laundry, vacuums and teaches you how to care for a newborn,” Julie said. Then began the regimen of regular checkups for the baby at the public health clinic. After that the heavily subsidized day care kicked in, which, Julie told me, “is huge, in that it helps me live as a writer who doesn’t make a lot of money.”
Canada. One interesting aspect of life for our neighbors to the north: only about 4% of its workforce works “very long hours” compared to 11% here in the States. They also have that darn socialized medicine, but still end comfortably ahead of us.
Why has America dropped so much lower than it once was? As Laza Kekic, who is the director of country forecasting services at Economist Intelligence Unit,writes:
America was helped to the top spot back in 1988 by the inclusion in the ranking of a “philistine factor” (for cultural poverty) and a “yawn index” (the degree to which a country might, despite all its virtues, be irredeemably boring). Switzerland scored terribly on both counts...
However, there is surely a lot to be said for boring stability in today’s (and no doubt tomorrow’s) uncertain times.