15. Human Capital

Educational attainment among young adults reflects the stock of knowledge and skills likely to be available to future generations. The share of young adults (aged 25 to 34) with at least an upper secondary education has been rising for the majority of OECD countries over the past four years (Figure 15.2). The OECD average rate was 84.9% in 2018, ranging from over 95% in Korea and the Russian Federation to less than 70% in Turkey, Spain and Colombia, and 50% in Mexico.

Since 2014, the OECD average upper secondary attainment rate for young adults has increased by 2 percentage points. Some of the largest improvements occurred in countries furthest behind the OECD average in 2014, thus narrowing the attainment gap between countries. For example, Turkey gained 7.7 percentage points, Portugal 6.9 and Iceland 6.8. By contrast, the largest falls occurred in the United Kingdom (by around 1.3 percentage points), followed by Austria (1.1).

The labour underutilisation rate describes the share of the labour force that is either unemployed, underemployed (e.g. those who are involuntarily working part-time) or discouraged (i.e. persons not in the labour force who wish to and are available to work, but who did not actively seek work in the previous four weeks). It therefore provides a wider view of joblessness and unrealised potential compared to unemployment alone, with underutilisation rates typically between 1.5 and 4 times higher than the standard unemployment rate. There are large differences in labour underutilisation across OECD countries (Figure 15.3), with a gap of over 24 percentage points between Greece (where over 27% of the population is underutilised) and the Czech Republic (with only 3.6%).

Labour underutilisation has improved for all but five OECD countries since 2010 (Figure 15.4), and of these, only two (Italy and Greece) have worsened by more than one percentage point. Latvia has recorded the largest improvement, with labour underutilisation falling by 18.8 percentage points.

Potential years of life lost (PYLL) is a measure of premature mortality, due to a range of medical conditions or fatal accidents. Among OECD countries, Switzerland, Japan, Luxembourg and Norway have the lowest incidence of premature mortality, with rates below 3 200 years lost per 100 000 inhabitants, while Latvia and Mexico have the highest rates (8 733 and 8 661, respectively) – almost three times higher than the top performers (Figure 15.5). Premature mortality has improved in most OECD countries over the past decade, with the greatest fall in years of potential life lost in Lithuania (a 24% fall), Korea (22%), Luxembourg (19%) and Finland (18%). By contrast, premature mortality increased by 5% in the United States. Beyond OECD countries, South Africa saw a very large improvement (almost 28%) between 2010 and 2015.

Smoking is a risk factor for human capital, as it damages future health through links to cancer, heart disease, respiratory problems and birth defects. In OECD countries on average, 19% of people report that they smoke tobacco at least once a day. In Greece, Turkey and Hungary, more than one-quarter of the population smokes daily, while in Mexico and Iceland fewer than 10% do. Since 2005, smoking rates have generally fallen most in the OECD countries already doing comparatively well. The fall has been steepest in Norway (13 percentage points), followed by Greece (12.7 points), Estonia, New Zealand and Denmark (10.6, 9.4 and 9.1 points, respectively). Costa Rica has the lowest level of daily smoking prevalence of all countries included in Figure 15.6 (at 4%), having more than halved its smoking rate since 2005. Only Austria and the Slovak Republic have experienced an increase in smoking since 2005 (by 1.1 and 3.4 percentage points, respectively).

Men have higher smoking rates than women in all but one OECD country: Iceland (Figure 15.7). Korea has by far the largest gender gap, with men over nine times more likely to smoke than women. Japan, Lithuania, Mexico and Turkey also have large gaps, with men more than three times as likely to smoke as women.

Obesity is another major risk to human capital: it increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. One in every five people are obese in OECD countries, on average (where obesity is defined as a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher). Differences across countries are large (Figure 15.8), ranging from 5% or less in Japan and Korea, to more than 40% in the United States (OECD, 2017[1]).

Over the past 15 years, obesity rates have been rising in most OECD countries. Of the 27 countries with time series data, none showed a fall in obesity rates, and only 2 maintained the same rate (Ireland and France). Chile showed the steepest increase, with obesity prevalence rising by 9.3 percentage points. Countries with higher levels of obesity have also recorded some of the largest increases over the past 15 years, suggesting that the problem is compounding rather than reaching a plateau. Even countries with relatively low levels of obesity – such as Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Korea – have also experienced increases over the past decade.

The picture for gender gaps in obesity prevalence across OECD countries is mixed. Men have a higher obesity rate than women in 15 countries (with rates 20% higher in Switzerland, Slovenia and Italy). On the other hand, obesity prevalence among women is higher than that for men in 19 OECD countries, with the largest gaps in Turkey and Colombia.


[3] Boarini, R., M. Mira d’Ercole and G. Liu (2012), “Approaches to Measuring the Stock of Human Capital: A Review of Country Practices”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2012/4, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k8zlm5bc3ns-en.

[6] OECD (2018), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en.

[7] OECD (2017), Health at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/health_glance-2017-en.

[8] OECD (2017), How’s Life? 2017: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/how_life-2017-en.

[1] OECD (2017), Obesity Update 2017, OECD, Paris, http://oecd.org/health/obesity-update.htm.

[2] OECD (2015), How’s Life? 2015: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/how_life-2015-en.

[5] OECD (2011), How’s Life?: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264121164-en.

[4] OECD (2009), Measuring Capital - OECD Manual 2009: Second edition, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264068476-en.

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