Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's getting better all the time. Really. Nearly.

Ten years ago as athlete Cathy Freeman lit the torch at Sydney Olympic Stadium, Australians felt on top of the world. We feel flatter now, but we shouldn't. The Bureau of Statistics says in just about every way that can be measured we are better off.

Income per head has climbed 30 per cent since 2000 - that's over and above inflation. Wealth per head has climbed almost 10 per cent.

But recognising there's more to life than money the Bureau yesterday published a range of broader measures, about 40 in all, under the heading Measures of Australia’s Progress.

We're healthier than ten years ago. Boys born now can expect to live 3 years longer than back then, girls 2 years longer. The expected lifespan of a boy is approaching 80 years, a girl 84. Strangely enough we don't feel any healthier. Our self-assessed health status is little changed.

We're also better educated. The proportion of us with a post-school qualification has jumped from 49 per cent to 63 per cent. And more of us are in work, with the long-term unemployment rate sliding to half of what it was a decade ago, even after the economic crisis. We're scarcely more productive than we were with productivity sliding in recent years after climbing earlier in the decade. But the proportion of children living without an employed parent has plummeted and suicide rates have slid 30 per cent for men and 20 per cent for women.

We are also more likely to volunteer, a trend that runs counter to the United States where community service has been declining for decades, and we are making better use of women. Females made up 28 per cent of the last parliament compared to 13 per cent earlier in the decade. Around 11 per cent of our business executives are females compared to 8 per cent earlier in the decade...

And that's about where the good news stops.

According to the Bureau rent is no more affordable than it was a decade ago and houses a good deal less affordable. The proportion of homes sold to low-income Australians halved between 2004 and 2008.

And our environment is getting worse. Between 2004 and 2008 we lost a further 10 per cent of our native forest. We overfish more now than we did at the start of the decade, although not as much as in 2005 when overfishing peaked. And we are producing twice as much waste per person as we did at the start of the decade. On the other hand we are using less water, perhaps because we have to.

More of our flora and fauna are threatened than at the time of the Olympics, endangered floara species up 17 per cent and endangered fauna up 37 per cent. And our net emissions of greenhouse gases have climbed 16 per cent since the negotiation of the Kyoto protocol that was meant to bring them down.

Taken together the Bureau paints a picture of progress across a broad range of fronts, not only the financial, with the environment about the only area in which life ifs getting worse.

But we feel no better. The Bureau doesn't ask about feelings, believing that opinion surveys are for other organisations. Professor Bob Cummins of Deakin University has been compiling a wellbeing index since 2001. He says we feel no better off than we did then.

"It's an international trend within Western countries," he told The Age. "The economy and other things might get better but happiness doesn't much change."

The Westpac Melbourne Institute consumer confidence index reports a post-election slump of 5 per cent, with confidence amongst Coalition voters sliding 8 per cent to the point where optimists barely outnumber pessimists.

Although we still seem keen to spend. A healthy 57 per cent of us agreed that now was a good time to buy a major household item; 55 per cent thought it was a good time to buy a car.

Published in today's SMH

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