How Was Life?

Global Well-being since 1820

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How was life in 1820, and how has it improved since then? What are the long-term trends in global well-being? Views on social progress since the Industrial Revolution are largely based on historical national accounting in the tradition of Kuznets and Maddison. But trends in real GDP per capita may not fully re­flect changes in other dimensions of well-being such as life expectancy, education, personal security or gender inequality. Looking at these indicators usually reveals a more equal world than the picture given by incomes alone, but has this always been the case? The new report How Was Life? aims to fill this gap. It presents the first systematic evidence on long-term trends in global well-being since 1820 for 25 major countries and 8 regions in the world covering more than 80% of the world’s population. It not only shows the data but also discusses the underlying sources and their limitations, pays attention to country averages and inequality, and pinpoints avenues for further research.

The How Was Life? report is the product of collaboration between the OECD, the OECD Development Centre and the CLIO-INFRA project. It represents the culmination of work by a group of economic historians to systematically chart long-term changes in the dimensions of global well-being and inequality, making use of the most recent research carried out within the discipline. The historical evidence reviewed in the report is organised around 10 different dimensions of well-being that mirror those used by the OECD in its well-being report How’s Life?, and draw on the best sources and expertise currently available for historical perspectives in this field. These dimensions are:per capita GDP, real wages, educational attainment, life expectancy, height, personal security, political institutions, environmental quality, income inequality and gender inequality.



Real wages since 1820

Wages are an important element of well-being, as they directly affect material living conditions. This chapter describes trends in real wages since 1820 for a wide set of countries derived with a standardized method that allows for comparisons over time and space. The main indicator is based on the real wage of an unskilled male labourer in the building industry. Its derivation is based on data on nominal wages adjusted by the price of a subsistence basket of goods. Strengths and weaknesses of this method are discussed. It is found that during the first half of the 19th century, real wages in large parts of the world were barely above subsistence, except for parts of Western Europe and in particular in the Western Offshoots. As in the case of GDP per capita, cross-country differences in real wages increased rapidly since 1820, and diminished in the late 20th century.