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The United Kingdom performs very well in overall well-being, as shown by the fact that it ranks among the top 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 the United Kingdom, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 26 904 USD a year, more than the OECD average of 23 047 USD a year. But there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn nearly six times as much as the bottom 20%.
In terms of employment, over 70% of people aged 15 to 64 in the United Kingdom have a paid job, above the OECD employment average of 66%. Some 76% of men are in paid work, compared with 65% of women. People in the United Kingdom work 1 625 hours a year, less than the OECD average of 1 776 hours. About 12% of employees work very long hours, more than the OECD average of 9%, with 18% of men working very long hours compared with just 6% for women.
Having a good education is an important requisite for finding a job. In the United Kingdom, 75% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, close to the OECD average of 74%. This is truer of men than women, as 78% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 72% of women. This difference is larger than the OECD average gap and suggests women’s participation in higher education could be strengthened. In terms of the quality of the educational system, the average student scored 500 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), slightly higher than the OECD average of 497. On average in the United Kingdom, girls outperformed boys by 2 points, less than the average OECD gap of 9 points.
In terms of health, life expectancy at birth in the United Kingdom is 81 years, one year higher than the OECD average. Life expectancy for women is 83 years, compared with 79 for men. The level of atmospheric PM10 – tiny air pollutant particles small enough to enter and cause damage to the lungs – is 13 micrograms per cubic meter, considerably lower than the OECD average of 21 micrograms per cubic meter. The United Kingdom also does well in terms of water quality, as 97% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, more than the OECD average of 84%.
Concerning the public sphere, there is a strong sense of community and a moderate level of civic participation in the United Kingdom, where 95% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, higher than the OECD average of 90%. Voter turnout, a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, was 66% during recent elections. This figure is lower than the OECD average of 72%. Social and economic status can affect voting rates; voter turnout for the top 20% of the population is 73% and for the bottom 20% it is 50%, a broader difference than the OECD average gap of 12 percentage points, suggesting there is room for broader social inclusion in the United Kingdom’s democratic institutions.
In general, people in the United Kingdom are more satisfied with their lives than the OECD average, with 85% 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 higher than the OECD average of 80%.
OECD in Action
Mental Health and Work: United Kingdom
This report on the United Kingdom looks at how the broader education, health, social and labour market policy challenges are being tackled.Read this report
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United Kingdom in Detail
Housing – United Kingdom 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 the United Kingdom, households on average spend 22% of their gross adjusted disposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, slightly above 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 the United Kingdom, 89% of people say they are satisfied with their current housing situation, slightly more than the OECD average of 87%. This relatively high level of subjective satisfaction reflects the United Kingdom’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 children’s development. In addition, dense living conditions are often a sign of inadequate water and sewage supply. In the United Kingdom, the average home contains 1.8 rooms per person, more than the OECD average of 1.6 rooms per person. In terms of basic facilities, 99.9%of people in the United Kingdom live in dwellings with private access to an indoor flushing toilet, more than the OECD average of 97.8%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Income – United Kingdom 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, healthcare and housing.
Household net-adjusted disposable income is the amount of money that a household earns each year after tax. It represents the money available to a household for spending on goods or services. In the United Kingdom, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 26 904 USD a year, higher than the OECD average of 23 047 USD.
Household financial wealth is the total value of a household’s financial worth. In the United Kingdom, the average household net financial wealth is estimated at 62 965 USD, higher than the OECD average of 40 516 USD. While the ideal measure of household wealth should include real 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 the United Kingdom, the average net adjusted disposable income of the top 20% of the population is an estimated 56 026 USD a year, whereas the bottom 20% live on an estimated 9 927 USD a year.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Jobs – United Kingdom 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 the United Kingdom, more than 70% of the working-age population aged 15 to 64 has a paid job. This figure is higher than the OECD employment average of 66%.
Women are still less likely than men to participate in the labour market. In the United Kingdom, 65% of women have jobs. This is more than the OECD average of 60% but less than the 76% employment rate of men in the United Kingdom. This 11 percentage point gender difference is slightly lower than the OECD average of 12 percentage points and suggests the United Kingdom could further improve employment opportunities for women but has generally been successful in addressing the constraints and barriers women face accessing work.
Young people in the United Kingdom, aged 15-24, face difficulties however, with an unemployment rate of 20.0%, higher than the OECD average of 16.2%.
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 the United Kingdom, the percentage of the labour force that has been unemployed for a year or longer is currently at 2.6%, slightly lower than the OECD average of 3.1%. There is little difference on average between men and women in the OECD area when it comes to long-term unemployment. In the United Kingdom, however, the difference is relatively high with an unemployment rate of 3.2% for men and 1.9% for women.
The wages and other monetary benefits that come with employment are an important aspect of job quality. In the United Kingdom, people earn 44 743 US dollars per year on average, much more than the OECD average of 34 466 USD. Not everyone earns that amount however. Whereas the top 20% of the population earn 57 373 USD per year, the bottom 20% live on 24 428 USD per year.
Another essential factor of employment quality is job security. Employees working on temporary contracts are more vulnerable than workers with an open-ended contract. In the United Kingdom, close to 7% of total employees have a contract of 6 months or less, slightly less than the average of 10% for 30 OECD countries. This figure suggests the United Kingdom has been successful in stabilising working contracts and encouraging open-ended contracts.
Better Policies for Better Lives
The Mayor’s Apprenticeship Campaign in London
Quality apprenticeships are effective policy tools for fostering skills acquisition and promoting smooth transitions from school to formal sector employment, offering advantages to both employers and school-leavers. London has one of the highest unemployment rates in the United Kingdom and, until recently, particularly low takeup of training opportunities, such as apprenticeships. The government has adopted a more market-based approach to skills and funding has been shifted to support greater use of apprenticeships, which are seen as employer-driven and an approach that can boost individuals’ skills.
The Mayor’s Apprenticeship Campaign in London was established to boost the use of apprenticeships in a context where employers are seen as the leaders of the skills development system. As a result of the campaign, the number of apprentices in London doubled in one year alone: from 20 000 in 2009-10 to 40 000 in 2010-11. There have been concerns at national level that increases in the quantity of training may have come partly at the expense of quality. While this is an ongoing challenge, evidence suggests that the quality of apprenticeships has been maintained in London: apprenticeship completion rates have risen from one in three to two in three, the fastest growth rate in England.
More ResourcesWell‑being in the workplace: Measuring job quality
Community – United Kingdom 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 United Kingdom spend 2 minutes per day in volunteering activities, lower than the OECD average of 4 minutes per day. Around 56% reported having helped a stranger in the last month, more than the OECD average of 48%.
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 the United Kingdom, 95% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, more than the OECD average of 90%. There is a 3 percentage point difference between men and women, as 93% of men believe they have this kind of social support, compared with 96% of women While on average in the OECD there is a clear relationship between the availability of social support on the one hand, and people’s education level, on the other, in the United Kingdom there is only a slight difference in the availability of social support depending on people’s status, as 92% of people who have completed primary education report having someone to count on for help in times of need, compared to 96% for people who attained 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 – United Kingdom 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. Most concretely, 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 just below 56% 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 the United Kingdom, 75% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, slightly more than the OECD average of 74%. This is truer of men than women, as 78% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 72% of women. This 6 percentage point difference is higher than the OECD average of 2 percentage points and suggests women’s participation in secondary education could be strengthened. Among younger people – a better indicator of the United Kingdom’s future – 83% of 25-34 year-olds have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, slightly more than the OECD average of 82%.
The British can expect to go through 16.6 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, slightly more than the OECD average of 16.5 years. This level of education expectancy echoes the United Kingdom’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 2009, 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 the United Kingdom scored 500 in reading literacy, maths and sciences, higher than the OECD average of 497. Boys and girls performed equally.
The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In the United Kingdom, the average difference in results, between the 20% with the highest socio-economic background and the 20% with the lowest socio-economic background is 103 points, higher than the OECD average of 99 points. This suggests the school system in the United Kingdom tends to provide higher quality education for the better off.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Reversing teacher shortages in the United Kingdom
When it took office, the Blair administration faced one of the worst shortages of teachers in history. Five years later, there were eight applicants for every job opening. To some extent this had to do with raising compensation significantly, as well as with important changes in teachers’ work environment; but a sophisticated and powerful recruiting program played a very important part in the turnaround.
The recruitment campaign was launched with strong political and financial backing by the Training and Development Agency (TDA) in 2000. An extra GBP 150 million was allocated to employ leading international advertising and recruitment agencies to undertake extensive market research on the motivations and barriers to becoming a teacher and to develop award-winning marketing strategies. In addition, a new GBP 6000 education bursary was offered to all trainees as a one-off, tax-free payment to support them through their education. A “golden hello” of up to GBP 4000 was also introduced, with the full amount paid in shortage subjects such as math and physics.
By focusing on the idea of teaching “making a difference”, the new campaign aimed to improve the status of teaching as a profession. It also emphasized the flexibility and diversity of the skills teachers acquire, the variety of routes into teaching, and the possibility of doing it as a “first career” before moving on to other things. The advertising approach was direct, encouraging people to call a national information line, which also allowed the TDA to collect data on people who were considering teaching and to target those with skills in shortage subjects, such as math and physics.
Within three months of the launch of the advertising campaign, the number of people calling the national teaching recruitment helpline tripled. By 2003/2004 the vacancy-to-employment rate halved to less than 1% for all subjects, with major gains in shortage subjects, such as mathematics, where the number of new recruits had almost doubled by 2005.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Environment – United Kingdom expand
The quality of our local living environment has a direct impact on our health. 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 the United Kingdom, 9% of people feel they lack access to green spaces or recreational areas, less than the 12 % 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 the United Kingdom, PM10 levels are 12.7 micrograms per cubic meter, much lower than the OECD average of 20.9 micrograms per cubic meter and the annual guideline limit of 20 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization.
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 the United Kingdom, 97% of people say they are satisfied with water quality. This figure is the highest in the OECD, where the average is of 84% and suggests the United Kingdom has been successful in providing good quality water to its inhabitants.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030
Governance – United Kingdom expand
A cohesive society is one where citizens have a high degree of confidence in their governmental institutions and public administration. In the United Kingdom, 65% of people say they trust their political institutions, more than the OECD average of 56%. 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 the United Kingdom was 66% of those registered. This figure is lower than the OECD average of 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. In the United Kingdom, however, women outvote men by nearly 7 percentage points. Income can also have a strong influence on voter turnout. In the United Kingdom, voter turnout for the top 20% of the population is an estimated 73%, whereas the participation rate of the bottom 20% is an estimated 50%. This 23 percentage point difference is much higher than the OECD average difference of 12 percentage points and points to shortcomings in the political mobilisation of the worst-off.
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, maintain confidence in public institutions and support a level playing field for business.
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 the United Kingdom can file a request for information either in writing or online, but not yet by telephone or in person. In addition, there are no provisions for anonymity or protection from retaliation.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Health – United Kingdom 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 the United Kingdom stands at 81 years, one year above the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 83 years, compared with 79 for men, a slightly smaller gender difference than the OECD average gap of 6 years, with a life expectancy of 83 years for women and 77 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). Total health spending accounts for 9.6% of GDP in the United Kingdom, close to the OECD average of 9.5%. The United Kingdomalso ranks slightly above the OECD average in terms of health spending per person, at 3433 USD in 2010, compared with an OECD average of 3268 USD. Between 2000 and 2009, total health spending in the United Kingdom increased in real terms by 5.2% per year on average, a faster rate than the OECD average of 4.7%. This growth rate slowed down to 0.2% in 2010.
Throughout the OECD, tobacco consumption and excessive weight gain remain two important risk factors for many chronic diseases. The United Kingdom has achieved some progress in reducing tobacco consumption, with current rates of daily smokers among adults standing at 21.5%, slightly above the OECD average of 21.1%. In many OECD countries, large proportions of the population are overweight or obese. In the United Kingdom, the obesity rate among adults – is 26.1%, much higher than the OECD average of 17.8%. 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?” 77% of people in the United Kingdom 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 71% for men and 66% for women. In the United Kingdom, the average is 78% for men and 76% for women. Not surprisingly, older people report poorer health, as do those who are unemployed, or who have less education or income. About 88% of the top 20% of the adult population in the United Kingdom rate their health as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to about 68% for the bottom 20%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Life Satisfaction – United Kingdom 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, British people gave it a 6.8 grade, slightly 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 the United Kingdom, where men gave their life a 6.8 grade and women 6.9. Education levels, however, strongly influence subjective well-being. Whereas British people who have only completed primary education have a life satisfaction level of 6.4, this score reaches 7.2 for those British 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. 85% of people in the United Kingdom 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 80%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Safety – United Kingdom 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 the United Kingdom, 1.9% of people reported falling victim to assault over the previous 12 months, less than the OECD average of 4.0%. There is a difference of more than 2 percentage points between men and women, at respectively 3.2% and 0.8%.
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, the United Kingdom’s homicide rate is 1.2, lower than the OECD average of 2.2. In the United Kingdom, the homicide rate for men is 1.6 compared with 0.8 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 the United Kingdom, 71% of people feel safe walking alone at night, slightly higher than the OECD average of 67%. 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 – United Kingdom 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 are more likely to spend more hours in paid work, while women spend longer on unpaid domestic work. Men in the United Kingdom, spend 150 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, more than the OECD average of 131 minutes but still less than English women who spend 273 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 the United Kingdom work 1 625 hours a year, less than the OECD average of 1 776 hours. The share of employees working more than 50 hours per week is not very large across OECD countries. In the United Kingdom, some 12% of employees work very long hours, more than the OECD average of 9%. Overall, men spend more hours in paid work: in the United Kingdom 18% of men work very long hours, compared with 6% 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. People in the United Kingdom devote 66% of their day, or 14.8 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socializing with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.) – close to the OECD average of 14.9 hours. Fewer hours in paid work for women do not necessarily result in greater leisure time. In the United Kingdom, both men and women devote approximately 15 hours per day to personal care and leisure.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Early investment is needed to meet UK poverty targets
Between 2003 and 2007 the UK strengthened its position as one of the biggest investors in families in the OECD. Early childhood spending rose substantially, driven by new cash supports for children around birth and increased investment on childcare services. In 2007 the UK spent more on children than most OECD countries, at just over 138 000 pounds sterling per child from birth up to the age of 18, compared to an OECD average of just under 95 000 pounds. Before the financial crisis, and during a period of increased investment (1995 to 2005), child poverty in the UK fell more than in any other OECD country (in 2005 it was 10.5%, down from 17.4% in 1995, compared to an OECD average of 12.7%); in the same period the growth in average family income was third highest in the OECD.
Today, spending cuts, such as cutting benefits for pregnancy and childbirth, and a freeze on child cash benefits, will affect many families. Progress in child poverty reduction in the UK has stalled, and is now predicted to increase; social protection spending on families therefore needs to be protected. Providing services such as affordable and good quality local day-care centres, with flexible opening hours, is key to helping families with children on low-incomes into work.
To this end, the plan outlined in the UK Child Poverty Strategy to extend the 15 hours of free early education services to disadvantaged children as young as two years old is a positive step for well-being of these children and the job prospects of their parents. Nonetheless childcare costs can remain a barrier to work for parents higher up the income scale, and there is room in UK policy for an effective childcare supplement for working parents.