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Belgium performs well in many measures of well-being, as shown by the fact that it ranks among the top ten countries in several topics in the Better Life Index.
Money, while it cannot buy happiness, is an important means to achieving higher living standards. In Belgium, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is 27 811 USD a year, more than the OECD average of 23 938 USD a year. But there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn almost four times as much as the bottom 20%.
In terms of employment, over 62% of people aged 15 to 64 in Belgium have a paid job, below the OECD employment average of 65%. Some 67% of men are in paid work, compared with 57% of women. People in Belgium work 1 574 hours a year, less than the OECD average of 1 765 hours. Some 4% of employees work very long hours, much lower than the OECD average of 9%, with 6% of men working very long hours compared with just 2% for women.
Having a good education is an important requisite for finding a job. In Belgium, 71% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, close to the OECD average of 75%. This is truer of women than men, as 71% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 72% of women. This difference is lower than the OECD average and suggests that Belgium succeeds in delivering quality education regardless of gender. In terms of the quality of its educational system, the average student scored 509 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), higher than the OECD average of 497. On average in Belgium, girls outperformed boys by 6 points, below the average OECD gap of 8 points.
In terms of health, life expectancy at birth in Belgium is 81 years, one year higher than the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 83 years, compared with 78 for men. The level of atmospheric PM10 – tiny air pollutant particles small enough to enter and cause damage to the lungs – is 21.2 micrograms per cubic meter, above the OECD average of 20.1 micrograms per cubic meter. Belgium performs better in terms of water quality, as 84% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, in line with the OECD average.
Concerning the public sphere, there is a strong sense of community and high levels of civic participation in Belgium, where 91% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, higher than the OECD average of 89%. Voter turnout, a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, was 89% during recent elections; considerably higher than the OECD average of 72% and one of the highest in the OECD.
In general, Belgians are more satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, with 81% of people saying they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc.) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc.). This figure is slightly higher than the OECD average of 76%.
OECD in Action
Belgium (Flanders) - Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education
Under Belgium's federal system of government, responsibility for education policy lies with its three linguistic communities, the Dutch-speaking Flemish community, the French-speaking community and the German-speaking community. The regional government of Flanders, combining both regional and community powers, oversees an education system that is among the world's top performers.Watch this video on Youtube
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Belgium in Detail
Housing – Belgium expand
Living in satisfactory housing conditions is one of the most important aspects of people’s lives. Housing is essential to meet basic needs, such as shelter, but it is not just a question of four walls and a roof. Housing should offer a place to sleep and rest where people feel safe and have privacy and personal space; somewhere they can raise a family. All of these elements help make a house a home. And of course there is the question whether people can afford adequate housing.
Housing costs take up a large share of the household budget and represent the largest single expenditure for many individuals and families, by the time you add up elements such as rent, gas, electricity, water, furniture or repairs. In Belgium, households on average spend 20% of their gross adjusted disposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, slightly below the OECD average of 21%.
In addition to housing costs it is also important to examine living conditions, such as the average number of rooms shared per person and whether households have access to basic facilities. In Belgium, 95% of people say they are satisfied with their current housing situation, much more than the OECD average of 87%. This level of subjective satisfaction reflects Belgium’s good performance in objective housing indicators.
The number of rooms in a dwelling, divided by the number of persons living there, indicates whether residents are living in crowded conditions. Overcrowded housing may have a negative impact on physical and mental health, relations with others and the development of children. In addition, dense living conditions are often a sign of inadequate water and sewage supply. In Belgium, the average home contains 2.3 rooms per person, more than the OECD average of 1.6 rooms per person. In terms of basic facilities, 98.1% of people in Belgium live in dwellings with private access to an indoor flushing toilet, more than the OECD average of 97.9%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Income – Belgium expand
While money may not buy happiness, it is an important means to achieving higher living standards and thus greater well-being. Higher economic wealth may also improve access to quality education, health care and housing.
Household net-adjusted disposable income is the amount of money that a household earns each year after taxes and transfers. It represents the money available to a household for spending on goods or services. In Belgium, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is 27 811 USD a year, higher than the OECD average of 23 938 USD.
Household financial wealth is the total value of a household’s financial worth. In Belgium, the average household net financial wealth per capita is estimated at 78 368 USD, much higher than the OECD average of 42 903 USD. While the ideal measure of household wealth should include non-financial assets (e.g. land and dwellings), such information is currently available for only a small number of OECD countries.
Despite a general increase in living standards across OECD countries over the past fifteen years, not all people have benefited from this to the same extent. In Belgium, the average net adjusted disposable income of the top 20% of the population is an estimated 48 785 USD a year, whereas the bottom 20% live on an estimated 12 350 USD a year.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Jobs – Belgium expand
Having a job brings many important benefits, including: providing a source of income, improving social inclusion, fulfilling one’s own aspirations, building self-esteem and developing skills and competencies. In Belgium, nearly 62% of the working-age population aged 15 to 64 has a paid job. This figure is slightly lower than the OECD employment average of 65%. Employment rates are generally higher for individuals with a higher level of education. In Belgium, an estimated 82% of individuals with at least a tertiary education have a paid job, compared with an estimated 38% for those without an upper secondary education. This 44 percentage point difference is larger than the OECD average of 33 percentage points and suggests the job market in Belgium is relatively restrictive.
Women are still less likely than men to participate in the labour market. In Belgium, 57% of women have jobs. This is in line with the OECD average but less than the 67% employment rate of men in Belgium. This 10 percentage point gender difference is smaller than the OECD average of 16 percentage points and suggests Belgium could further improve employment opportunities for women but has generally been successful in addressing the constraints and barriers women face in accessing work.
Young Belgians aged 15-24 are not faring so well, with an unemployment rate of 19.8% compared with the OECD average of 16.3%.
Unemployed persons are defined as those who are not currently working but are willing to do so and actively searching for work. Long-term unemployment can have a large negative effect on feelings of well-being and self-worth and result in a loss of skills, further reducing employability. In Belgium, the percentage of the labour force that has been unemployed for a year or longer is currently at 3.4%, higher than the OECD average of 2.7%. There is little difference on average between men and women in the OECD area when it comes to long-term unemployment. In Belgium, the long-term unemployment rate for men is slightly higher than for women, with respectively 3.5% and 3.2%
The wages and other monetary benefits that come with employment are an important aspect of job quality. In Belgium, people earn 47 276 US dollars per year on average, more than the OECD average of 41 010 USD. Not everyone earns that amount however. Whereas the top 20% of the population earn an estimated 57 436 USD per year, the bottom 20% live on an estimated 32 554 USD per year.
Another essential factor of employment quality is job security. Workers facing a high risk of job loss are more vulnerable, especially in countries with smaller social safety nets. In Belgium, workers face a 4.5% chance of losing their job, lower than the OECD average of 5.3%.
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Community – Belgium expand
Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society. On average, people in Belgium spend 5 minutes per day in volunteering activities, higher than the OECD average of 4 minutes per day. Around 43% reported having helped a stranger in the last month, less than the OECD average of 49%.
A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as provide access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. In Belgium, 91% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, slightly more than the OECD average of 89%. There is no difference between men and women. While gender has little impact on social network support, there is a relationship between the availability of social support on the one hand, and people’s education level on the other. In Belgium, around 88% of people who have completed only primary education report having someone to count on for help in times of need, compared to over 92% for those who have completed tertiary education.
A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation. Socially isolated individuals face difficulties integrating into society as a contributing member and fulfilling personal aspirations.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Insights: Human Capital
Education – Belgium expand
A well-educated and well-trained population is essential for a country’s social and economic well-being. Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy. Having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money. Across OECD countries, 83% of people with university-level degrees have a job, compared with 55% for those with only a secondary school diploma. Lifetime earnings also increase with each level of education.
Following a decline in manual labour over previous decades, employers now favour a more educated labour force. High-school graduation rates therefore provide a good indication of whether a country is preparing its students to meet the minimum requirements of the job market. In Belgium, 71% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, close to the OECD average of 75%. Across the OECD, slightly more men aged 25-64 have the equivalent of a high-school degree compared with women from that same age group. In Belgium however, 72% of women have successfully completed high-school compared with 71% of men. Among younger people – a better indicator of Belgium’s future – 82% of 25-34 year-olds have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, in line with the OECD average.
Belgians can expect to go through 18.8 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, more than the OECD average of 17.7 years. This high level of education expectancy echoes Belgium’s good performance in the educational attainment of its 25-34 year-old population.
But graduation rates, while important, speak little to the quality of education received. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews the extent to which students have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. In 2012, PISA focused on examining students’ reading ability, skills in maths and level in sciences, as research shows that these skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school.
The average student in Belgium scored 509 in reading literacy, maths and sciences, higher than the OECD average of 497. On average in Belgium, girls outperformed boys by 6 points, lower than the average OECD gap of 8 points.
The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In Belgium, the average difference in results, between the students with the highest socio-economic background and the students with the lowest socio-economic background is 120 points, much higher than the OECD average of 96 points. This suggests the school system in Belgium does not provide equal access to high-quality education.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Environment – Belgium expand
The quality of our local living environment has a direct impact on our health and well-being. Having access to green spaces for example, is essential for quality of life. An unspoiled environment is a source of satisfaction, improves mental well-being, allows people to recover from the stress of everyday life and to perform physical activity. In Belgium, 12% of people feel they lack access to green spaces or recreational areas, in line with the average of OECD European countries.
Outdoor air pollution is one important environmental issue that directly affects the quality of peoples’ lives. Despite national and international interventions and decreases in major pollutant emissions, the health impacts of urban air pollution continue to worsen, with air pollution set to become the top environmental cause of premature mortality globally by 2050. Air pollution in urban centres, often caused by transport and the use of small-scale burning of wood or coal, is linked to a range of health problems, from minor eye irritation to upper respiratory symptoms in the short-term and chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer in the long-term. Children and the elderly may be particularly vulnerable.
PM10 – tiny particulate matter small enough to be inhaled into the deepest part of the lung – is monitored in OECD countries because it can harm human health and reduce life expectancy. In Belgium, PM10 levels are 21.2 micrograms per cubic meter, higher than the OECD average of 20.1 micrograms per cubic meter and the annual guideline limit of 20 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization. The Flemish study on air pollution and noise suggests that PM10 particles are responsible for the loss of one-third of a healthy life year of each Fleming, on average.
Access to clean water is fundamental to human well-being. Despite significant progress in OECD countries in reducing water pollution, improvements in freshwater quality are not always easy to discern. In Belgium, 84% of people say they are satisfied with water quality, in line with the OECD average of 84%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030
Governance – Belgium expand
Trust in government is essential for social cohesion and well-being. In Belgium, 55% of people say they trust their national government, more than the OECD average of 39%. High voter turnout is another measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process. In the most recent elections for which data is available, voter turnout in Belgium was 89% of those registered. This figure is one of the highest in the OECD area, where average turnout is 72%.
Even if the right to vote is universal in all OECD countries, not everyone exercises this right. There is little difference in the voting rates of men and women in most OECD countries. This is the case in Belgium, where voter turnout is similar between men and women, at an estimated 91% and 88%.
Ensuring that government decision making is not compromised by conflicts of interest is key to maintaining trust in government. Transparency is therefore essential to hold government to account and to maintain confidence in public institutions.
Freedom of information laws (FOI) allow the possibility for individuals to access undisclosed information. For such policies to be successful, the public should have a clear understanding of their rights under the law, should be able to file requests with ease and should be protected against any possible retaliation. People in Belgium can file a request for information either in writing, online, or in person – thus greatly facilitating the FOI process. However, there are no provisions for anonymity or protection from retaliation.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Citizen consultation for better policy implementation
In Belgium, public consultations regarding particular policy proposals have become increasingly common. Both Flanders and Wallonia have launched initiatives to strengthen citizen participation.
The Flemish practice of policy making traditionally comprises a lot of consultation. The creation of new strategic advisory councils has further formalised this approach. These councils, which include academic experts, civil society stakeholder groups and private sector organizations, formulate advice on policy proposals and draft legislation. This is a transparent way to address their concerns regarding policy initiatives and proposals.
In Wallonia relevant initiatives include roundtables with companies to discuss ways to cut red tape for business. Another notable initiative is the Ensemble Simplifions (“Let’s Simplify Together”) Plan, dedicated to cutting red tape across the board. The public were consulted in the design of the plan, and during its implementation, particularly through a special website www.ensemblesimplifions.be.
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Health – Belgium expand
Most OECD countries have enjoyed large gains in life expectancy over the past decades, thanks to improvements in living conditions, public health interventions and progress in medical care. Life expectancy at birth in Belgium stands at almost 81 years, slightly higher than the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 83 years, compared with 78 for men, a slightly smaller difference than the average OECD gender gap of six years, with a life expectancy for women of 83 years and 77 years for men.
Higher life expectancy is generally associated with higher healthcare spending per person, although many other factors have an impact on life expectancy (such as living standards, lifestyles, education and environmental factors). Health spending accounts for 10.5% of GDP in Belgium, about one percentage point higher than the OECD average of 9.4%. Belgium also ranks above the OECD average in terms of total health spending per person, at 4 061 USD in 2011, compared with an OECD average of 3 322 USD. Between 2000 and 2010, total health spending in Belgium increased in real terms by 3.8% per year on average, a slightly slower growth rate than the OECD average of 4.0%. This growth rate then slowed down to less than 2% per year in 2010 and 2011.
Throughout the OECD, tobacco consumption and excessive weight gain remain two important risk factors for many chronic diseases. In Belgium, the proportion of adults who smoke daily decreased from 40.5% in 1982 to 20.5% today, a figure slightly lower than the OECD average of 20.9%. In many OECD countries, large proportions of the population are overweight or obese. In Belgium, the obesity rate among adults based on self-reported height and weight has increased from 10.8% in 1997 to 13.8% today, but is still below the OECD average of 17.2%. Obesity’s growing prevalence foreshadows increases in the occurrence of health problems (such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and asthma), and higher health care costs in the future.
When asked, “How is your health in general?” 74% of people in Belgium reported to be in good health, higher than the OECD average of 69%. Despite the subjective nature of this question, answers have been found to be a good predictor of people’s future health care use. Gender, age and social status may affect answers to this question. On average in OECD countries, men are more likely to report good health than women, with an average of 72% for men and 67% for women. In Belgium, the difference is slightly smaller with an average of 76% for men and 72% for women. Not surprisingly, older people report poorer health, as do those who are unemployed, or who have less education or income. About 87% of adults with a disposable income in the top 20% in Belgium rated their health as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to about 58% for those with a disposable income in the bottom 20%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Life Satisfaction – Belgium expand
Happiness or subjective well-being can be measured in terms of life satisfaction, the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and the absence of negative experiences and feelings. Such measures, while subjective, are a useful complement to objective data to compare the quality of life across countries.
Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. It captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective well-being. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Belgians gave it a 7.1 grade, higher than the OECD average of 6.6.
There is little difference in life satisfaction levels between men and women across OECD countries. This is true in Belgium, where both men and women gave their life a 7.1 grade. Education levels do, however, influence subjective well-being. Whereas people who have only completed primary education in Belgium have a life satisfaction level of 6.8, this score reaches 7.4 for people with tertiary education.
Happiness, or subjective well-being, is also measured by the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and/or the absence of negative experiences and feelings. In Belgium, 81% of people reported having more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc.) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc.). This figure is higher than the OECD average of 76%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Safety – Belgium expand
Personal security is a core element for the well-being of individuals, and largely reflects the risks of people being physically assaulted or falling victim to other types of crime. Across the OECD, assault rates have generally declined in the past five years. In Belgium, 6.6% of people reported falling victim to assault over the previous 12 months, much more than the OECD average of 3.9%. There is little difference between men and women in assault rates, at 6.2% for men and 7.0% for women.
The homicide rate (the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants) is a more reliable measure of a country’s safety level because, unlike other crimes, murders are usually always reported to the police. According to the latest OECD data, Belgium’s homicide rate is 1.2, lower than the OECD average of 4.1. The homicide rate for men is 1.5 compared with 0.9 for women.
Fear of crime is another important indicator as it can constrain behaviour, restrict freedom and threaten the foundation of communities. Despite a general reduction in assault rates in the past five years, in many OECD countries feelings of security have declined. In Belgium, 63% of people feel safe walking alone at night, lower than the OECD average of 69%. While men are at a greater risk of being victims of assaults and violent crimes, women report lower feelings of security than men. This has been explained by a greater fear of sexual attacks, the feeling they must also protect their children and their concern that they may be seen as partially responsible.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Work-Life Balance – Belgium expand
Finding a suitable balance between work and life is a challenge for all workers, especially working parents. Some couples would like to have (more) children, but do not see how they could afford to stop working. Other parents are happy with the number of children in their family, but would like to work more. This is a challenge to governments because if parents cannot achieve their desired work/life balance, not only is their welfare lowered but so is development in the country.
People spend one-tenth to one-fifth of their time on unpaid work. The distribution of tasks within the family is still influenced by gender roles: men in Belgium spend 151 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, more than the OECD average of 141 minutes but considerably less than Belgian women who spend 245 minutes per day on average on domestic work.
Another important aspect of work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends at work. Evidence suggests that long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardize safety and increase stress. People in Belgium work 1 574 hours a year, less than the OECD average of 1 765 hours. The share of employees working more than 50 hours per week is not very large across OECD countries. In Belgium, 4% of employees work very long hours, less than the OECD average of 9%. Overall, men spend more hours in paid work: in Belgium 6% of men work very long hours, compared with 2% for women.
The more people work, the less time they have to spend on other activities, such as time with others or leisure. The amount and quality of leisure time is important for people’s overall well-being, and can bring additional physical and mental health benefits. In Belgium, full-time workers devote 65% of their day on average, or 15.7 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socialising with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.) more than the OECD average of 15 hours. Fewer hours in paid work for women do not necessarily result in greater leisure time. In Belgium, both men and women devote approximately 16 hours per day to personal care and leisure.