Friday, July 27, 2012

Standard of Living vs. Quality of Life

Standard of Living is a commonly tossed-around measure of a country's prosperity. Exceptionalists like to point out that the United States has the highest standard of living in the world, and anti-environmentalists cringe at the thought of environmental regulation reducing our standard of living. A lower standard of living does sound horrible at its face, but there is an important piece of information that is being left out in these discussions.

Standard of living, as it is commonly expressed, is a measure of consumption. It's not a measure of comfort, of health, or of happiness. It's simply a measure of how much stuff is consumed by each person in a society, on average. It's usually expressed in terms of GDP per capita. There are people who use "standard of living" to mean something more useful, but they are not in the majority.

This is different from measures that try to capture "quality of life." Quality of life is a concept that attempts to aggregate both material and intangible components of human well-being. Quality of life measures will include measures of economic health, but also things like access to health care, life expectancy, infant mortality, leisure time, self-reported happiness, equality, etc.

Americans may have the highest standard of living in the world, but we are suffering in the quality of life department. We have shorter lives, filled with less leisure, more economic insecurity, longer work hours and less travel than most of the rest of the civilized world.

Why am I bring this up on an alternative transport blog? Because I think this has profound implications for how we talk about re-organizing our built environment as we move in to the 21st Century. Two of the factors that contributed to our nation's vast accumulation of wealth over the last century-- cheap oil and the suburban boom-- are clearly unsustainable in the future. Much of the throwaway consumer economy is built on top of these things-- that, too, is coming to an end. We are most likely going to see a decline in our standard of living as we move in to the future.

That said, I don't think that a decline in standards of living must necessarily mean a decline in quality of life. For example, a person who takes a pay cut to live within walking distance of work has decreased their standard of living. Maybe they can no longer afford to consume all of the gasoline that they used to during their daily commute. But it's also likely that their quality of life has gone up-- they have more leisure time, they are healthier from including a brisk walk in their daily routine, they are likely happier from alleviating the stress of a long commute. Similarly, somebody who takes a pay cut and has to switch from eating fast food to cooking farmers' market vegetables at home has undergone the same transition-- a decrease in standard of living, but an increase in quality of life.

There is, of course, a reason that we measure standard of living this way. These two concepts are strongly correlated, at low levels of both. In the developing world, an increase in standard of living is often also an increase in quality of life, because it means the difference between starvation and satiety, between a cardboard shack and a modest house. But after a point (which is different for different cultures), additional consumption no longer translates in to additional happiness, and indeed can have the opposite effect.

We are all going to have to find these trade-offs in the coming years. The future will be about downsizing-- owning less, sharing more, living smaller, living closer. All of us are going to suffer a decline in our standard of living. Done properly, however, I think we could see a renaissance in our quality of life.

1 comment:

DJB said...

Good post! It reminds me of a graph that is sometimes printed in economics textbooks. It shows per capita income on the horizontal axis and self-reported happiness on the vertical axis. It's used to illustrate the concept of diminishing returns. The first dollar of income makes you much happier than the 100,000th!

We should definitely think of well being in a broader sense than how much stuff we can consume.