More than 50 years ago, Robert Kennedy proclaimed that GDP “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile”. There is more to economic success than low unemployment, low inflation, low taxation and strong economic growth.  

The Minister of Finance declared that one of the objectives of the 2022 budget would be a focus on the environment and “liveability”. One maxim of good management practice is that what can be measured can be managed. So far, the metrics that contribute to the quality of life of people are given secondary importance by economists and politicians.

This needs to change. The pandemic has left a devastating effect on the world. The silver lining of this trauma is that the mindset of many world leaders is changing, and priorities reset.

Over the last 50 years, there have been various attempts to introduce new metrics to measure elements that are generally considered critically important for a good quality of life.  

Some economists and social reformers have suggested alternatives for measuring economic success, including the Human Development Index, Sustainable Development Goals, Genuine Progress Indicator, Ecological Footprint, Happy Planet Index, Adjusted Net Savings, and Comprehensive Wealth. Yet, politicians and the media keep talking about GDP growth as the gold standard of success. As a result, there is a dominant narrative in society that “growth is good”.

The Club of Rome is a global think-thank consisting of 100 full members selected from current and former heads of state and government, UN administrators, high-level politicians and government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders from around the globe. Last week, they issued a position paper urging the European Commission “to take the lead in designing new policies that go beyond a rigid focus on GDP growth, towards a focus on the wellbeing of people and the planet”.

There is no shortage of political declarations of how vital the wellbeing of society is. The European Commission’s Strategic Foresight Dashboards and the European Green Deal report outline policy anchors for renewing Europe’s social and economic model. What is lacking is action on the ground to make this change in how we define success happen.

This change strategy will only be successful if it manages to reform the societal discourse on economic success. It is not just politicians who should act as catalysts to bring about this change. The media also play a crucial role in spreading the “growth is good” economic narrative.

International institutions like the United Nations and the European Commission must develop globally harmonised statistics and policy tools that will help the media and the general public shift their belief on economic success to a narrative that values wellbeing, sustainability and equity.  

The 2022 budget should provide concrete proof that the Minister of Finance’s promise to prioritise quality-of-life objectives is more than political rhetoric. Various global surveys confirm that young people today worry about the degradation of the environment and growth in inequalities. It is the responsibility of societal leaders to instil hope in the younger generations who fear inheriting a world made worse by the current unsustainable economic policies that have harmed the planet.

Ultimately, the pillars of well-being should always be about good health services, sustainable investment, fair income for work, protection of the environment, and support for the more vulnerable members of our communities.

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