Wellbeing and age: the best is yet to come?

10 February 2016

In 2010, David Cameron asked the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to devise a series of measures to gauge public wellbeing. Widely applauded by policymakers at the time, the announcement responded to the growing literature on the inadequacy of GDP growth as the absolute objective of government. What use is prosperity – the train of thought goes – if citizens are unhappy?

This development has introduced new difficulties into the policymaking process. Policymakers no longer just ask whether a given initiative achieves the desired output, such as reducing crime. They also need to consider whether achieving the output in this specific way improves wellbeing. For example, there is a well-documented relationship between wellbeing and employment. However does the quality of the job affect this relationship? (Not really, as the case seems to be). Those that rent in later life are amongst the most likely to be lonely. If we encouraged housing providers to build clusters of rental accommodation aimed specifically at older people, would this address the issue or create a whole new set of problems?

While data is crucial to untangling these issues, the nascent status of wellbeing measures presents a considerable obstacle. Since 2010 the ONS has been filling in the gaps, and last week saw the release of wellbeing statistics broken down by age. To those more familiar with popular conceptions of childhood than wellbeing economics, the findings would have come as a surprise. Individuals in the immediate aftermath of retirement saw highest levels of life satisfaction, happiness and a worthwhile life, as well as the lowest scores for anxiety. Those school days weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Previous studies on the distribution of wellbeing over age groups have also produced U-shaped findings (high wellbeing in early life, a drop off in middle age, and then an improvement in later life), however the ONS’s analysis departs from this picture in one crucial way. For those over the age of 80, all three measures fell over the course of retirement. However explaining these trends is complicated because of the potential for ‘cohort effects’. Baby boomers may simply have been borne into a more carefree life than generation X. For example, the effects of youth unemployment – not a particularly acute phenomenon in the UK, but one that is continuing to afflict continental Europe – has scarring effects on wellbeing that lasts for decades.

What is more certain is that these statistics indicate where policy attention would be most valuable. Crucially, addressing these trends need not cost the earth, particularly given previous administrations’ emphasis on inputs rather than outputs. Speaking at Reform’s annual conference this year, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell argued even marginal investment in mental health provision could considerably improve personal wellbeing. But without knowing the exact drivers of anxiety in middle age and the drop off in wellbeing later in life, it is impossible to devise solutions to such problems. Addressing these gaps will be an essential step to realising the Prime Minister’s ambition of a policymaking framework in which progress is judged by the promotion of wellbeing.

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