In 2014, the OECD published the report How Was Life?: Global Well-being since 1820 (van Zanden et al.[1]). Its aim was to provide an historical counterpart to the How’s Life? report published bi-annually by the OECD since 2011. The latter report was a first attempt at the international level to go beyond the conceptual stage and to present 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 pioneering work, presenting data for 25 large countries, eight world regions and the world as a whole for the period since 1820. How Was Life? was based on a collaboration between the OECD and the economic historical community organised around the Clio-Infra initiative and the Maddison Project. These initiatives supplied the historical data for the How Was Life? report, the expertise to assess the quality of the data and the possibilities for interpreting the long-term trends in the world economy. This volume continues the efforts initiated in How Was Life?.

The background to these reports was the “GDP and beyond” debate that, in recent years, received new impetus thanks to the seminal report by Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi (2009[2]). Economic historians have done a lot of work on estimating trends in GDP and GDP per capita for the world economy in the past thousand years, which had been integrated by Angus Maddison into one consistent dataset of GDP, population and GDP per capita for the past two millennia. Maddison had always maintained close contact with the OECD, which, in the 1990s and early 2000s, published his major books on long-term economic growth in the world economy. The How Was Life? volume emerged from talks about how to continue the Maddison tradition and how to add a historical dimension to the OECD’s Better Life Initiative. 

The present report continues this line of work, and develops an even more ambitious research agenda. One implication of the “beyond GDP” debate is that we should not measure inequality within countries – and at the global level – on the basis of estimates of income disparities only, but broaden our approach to other aspects of social and economic inequality. In other words, if we are interested in inequality of well-being, we have to try to measure the development of the inequalities of all dimensions of well-being that are, for example, included in the OECD Better Life Initiative. This has been the first goal of this report: to collect and standardise historical data about inequalities of various dimensions of well-being. This is a new and experimental area for historical research. Such data have not been collected systematically in the past, and their use requires the analysis of large new datasets (as presented in the various chapters of this report). The chapters in this book on inequality in wealth (Chapter 5), longevity (Chapter 6), educational attainment (Chapter 7), gender (Chapter 8) and the share of the population living in extreme poverty (Chapter 9) are all focused on the evolution – at the national but also at the global level – of these aspects of inequality. 

A related aim of this second book is to extend the database, and discuss and present new data covering other dimensions of well-being featuring in the Better Life Initiative. The chapter on Working Hours covers one of the main gaps in the How Was Life? report based on new historical data (Chapter 3). New historical research on one of the key aspects of sustainability, Biodiversity Loss, is presented in Chapter 10. This volume also presents new historical estimates of GDP that account for the 2011 round on purchasing power parities prepared by the International Comparison Program (Chapter 2). In addition, a global dataset on social spending is presented in Chapter 4.

The final chapter synthesises the results of the report through two composite indices of well-being; first, an average of the average well-being measures of each country presented in the current and previous volumes (i.e. a “mean-of-means”); second, a composite of the within-country inequality in income, educational attainment, life expectancy and gender.


Jan Luiten van Zanden

Utrecht University and University of Stellenbosch


Marco Mira d’Ercole



Mikołaj Malinowski,

Utrecht University and Universities of Lund and Humboldt in Berlin


Auke Rijpma,

Utrecht University and the International Institute of Social History

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