In 2014, the OECD published How Was Life?: Global Well-being since 1820, the result of a collaboration between the OECD and the OECD Development Centre, on one side, and an international group of economic historians organised around the Clio-Infra initiative and the Maddison Project, on the other (van Zanden et al., 2014[1]). This joint undertaking built on Angus Maddison’s long career at the OECD and the OECD Development Centre, and on the close contacts that he maintained with these institutions. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the OECD Development Centre had published Angus’ pioneering books on long-term economic growth in the world economy.

How Was Life? emerged from talks about how to continue the work of Angus Maddison and add an historical and global dimension to the OECD’s Better Life Initiative, launched following the release of the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi report (Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress) (2009[2]). The goal was to provide an historical perspective to the evidence included in How’s Life?, the OECD report published bi-annually since 2011 and now in its fifth issue, which relies on a large set of comparable well-being indicators for OECD countries and, to the extent possible, other major economies. How Was Life? added an historical dimension to this endeavour, by presenting data on a broad range of well-being dimensions for 25 large countries, eight regions and the world as a whole for the period since 1820. The community of economic historians organised around the Clio-Infra initiative supplied the historical data featured in How Was Life? and the expertise to assess the quality of these estimates and interpret the long-term trends in the world economy.

The present report continues this collaboration between the OECD and the Clio-Infra Initiative by presenting evidence from an even more ambitious research agenda. First, it extends the available historical evidence to other dimensions of people’s well-being, by presenting new estimates of working hours, biodiversity loss (a key aspect of sustainability) and government social spending, as well as new estimates of GDP that account for the 2011 round on purchasing power parities prepared by the International Comparison Program. Second, it broadens the perspective of inequality by looking beyond income disparities. The rationale is that, if we are interested in multi-dimensional well-being, we should look beyond income inequalities (covered in a chapter of the 2014 How Was Life?) to the other dimensions of well-being that are included in the OECD Better Life Initiative. The present report pursues this approach by presenting historical evidence drawn for large datasets on inequalities in wealth, longevity and educational attainment, as well as gender disparities and extreme poverty. The report retains a “global” perspective, providing evidence on a large number of countries across the whole world. While the historical evidence presented often relies on partial and sometimes limited evidence, each of the chapters in this book includes an assessment of the quality of the data used and identifies areas for further historical research.

The publication of this report is testimony of the role played by the OECD in promoting the discussion on “GDP and beyond”, and also witnessed by the recent release of the reports of the OECD-hosted High Level Expert Group on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Martine Durand (2018[3]; 2018[4]). The OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría has put the notions of well-being and inclusive growth at the heart of his vision and efforts to enhance the OECD’s relevance, responsiveness and impact during his tenure. The OECD Development Centre has operationalised many of these ideas in its Multi-Dimensional Country Reviews. The new OECD Centre on Well-Being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equality of Opportunity (WISE), created on 1 July 2020 by gathering under one roof a range of statistical and policy activities previously carried out in different parts of the organisation, aims to further strengthen and consolidate this work.

We believe that the long-term and global perspective provided in this report will be an essential reference for researchers, practitioners and general readers interested in knowing more on the historical development of people’s lives.



Mario Pezzini

Director, OECD Development Centre



Romina Boarini

Director, OECD Centre for Well-being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE)

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