Today’s employment figures offer a mixed picture. On the one hand, the headline rate of unemployment has fallen compared to last month, and youth unemployment is down slightly.
On the other hand, unemployment continues to climb in regions like the North East and North West, and long term unemployment is up again, with more people out of work for more than a year compared to any time since the mid-1990s.
In the midst of this economic gloom, it is easy to get dragged into short-term thinking, and take a narrow a view of what matters. While returning the economy to growth is clearly extremely important, we also need to be thinking about what ‘good growth’ looks like.
To achieve this we need to understand better what really matters to people and enhances their quality of life and wellbeing.
David Cameron took a keen interest in this question early in his tenure as Conservative leader, arguing that alongside measuring the economic health of the nation through measures like GDP, we should also measure gross national wellbeing. This is something the ONS has been working on, and the first full set of national wellbeing accounts are expected in July.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, employment is fundamental to people’s assessment of their own wellbeing. Indeed, unemployment is particularly damaging to wellbeing: it can result in loss of status and confidence as well as loss of income, and those out of work for long periods experience a scarring effect on their health as well as their future earning prospects.
Analysis by the OECD finds peoples judgement of how satisfied they are with their lives is driven by four key factors: whether or not they’re in employment, their health, the quality of their relationships with other people, and their income.
Having embraced this agenda, the big question for David Cameron is whether he can maintain the momentum behind it in the face of recession at home and the Euro crisis abroad.
IPPR North have been exploring this question as part of a project we are working on with Carnegie UK Trust and have begun by visiting countries that have a head start on measure wellbeing to ask how these measures are begin put into policy practice.
It is one thing establish a better understanding of what matters for people’s wellbeing though surveys and data analysis, but for these measures to really matter they need to influence the decisions we make in policy terms and how we judge success.
So far we’ve been to France – home to the high profile Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission that sought to move beyond GDP to measure wellbeing and sustainability.
The findings there are not overly encouraging: with political leaders consumed by short term economic considerations, the shallow rootedness of this agenda has been cruelly exposed. While the French are measuring wellbeing, a lack of champions in government - and a lack of interest in civil society and the media - has resulted in a loss of momentum.
The key tests for this agenda in the UK will be what happens after the ONS publishes its survey results in the summer.
The first test will be whether David Cameron continues to promote the agenda and gives it profile.
The second test will be what his government does with the results.
If we’re serious about wellbeing we should expect to see issues like the balance between work and leisure time, how to support good quality relationships and how to prevent ill health as high on the policy agenda as employment and growth are at present.
Katie Schmuecker is associate director at IPPR North