Annie Quick, the Wellbeing and Inequality Lead for the New Economics Foundation visited us recently for our Soundbite series. NEF have recently set up the New Economy Organisers Network – a network of people working towards a sustainable and inclusive economy.

Here is a write-up of the main messages behind her presentation, and a summary of our discussion afterwards:

Inequality in wellbeing has contributed to the kind of political environment we see today.

The brexit result correlated with inequalities in wellbeing, not inequalities in income. Areas that voted to leave the EU were also highest in wellbeing inequality, which means greatest gaps in how people perceive the value and satisfaction of their lives. The Leave campaign was about restoring meaning into people’s’ lives. Many people said they were happy to take a hit economically, as long as they gained an element of control in their lives.

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Wellbeing has been growing as a topic politically. In 2009, the All Party Parliamentary Group for wellbeing economics was launched. In 2010, the required measuring of wellbeing impact was incorporated into policy making framework.

But the paradigm of economic growth still trumps other outcomes. This means that on the whole, politics and society remains capital-driven. Again and again, the government pursues sustainability and wellbeing – so long as long as it doesn’t interfere with economic growth

In 2010, David Cameron gave a speech on wellbeing, but was clear to clarify that pursuit of wellbeing would not interfere with the need for economic growth, saying:

First and foremost, people are concerned that talking about wellbeing shows this government is sidelining economic growth as our first concern. At a time when we are recovering from the longest and deepest recession since the war, they say all our energies should be focussed on driving up GDP. Let me be very clear. Growth is the essential foundation of all our aspirations

This is demonstrated politically time and time again when there are “trade-offs” between wellbeing or sustainability and economic growth. This is demonstrated by the generous subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in the UK – in 2015, the UK became the only country in G7 to “dramatically increase” its fossil fuel subsidies. Additionally, personal debt has spiralled since the financial crash, with more than 8.2 million adults, or 16% of the population, having “problem debt”, which is disastrous for wellbeing

To make meaningful progress on wellbeing, we need to fundamentally dethrone economic growth as the main indicator of how things are going.

Inequalities in how people see their lives lead to political resentment that defines the current political atmosphere.

Q&A session –

Question: The simplicity of GDP as measuring any progress or failure – the way it moves up and down – can be attractive to people. Wellbeing is nebulous and difficult to measure. What is NEF doing to make it easier and more digestible?

AQ: Wellbeing has an image problem. It means different things to different people. Can you develop robust measures? Yes – we have decades of research using a few different questions. Life satisfaction on a scale of 1-10 on a population level with aggravated data. The tools are there, but perhaps the message needs to be made clearer to create a public shift in ideas of what the economy is for, but there are not underlying technical reasons for not measuring wellbeing

Question: How does NEF define wellbeing?

AQ: We look at how satisfied people are overall, and whether people have positive feelings in day to day life.

Question: How are communities considered within the context of wellbeing? Are they safety nets, or seen as social capital for networks? What does the individual get from the community?

AQ: This presentation was focused on pulling out drivers of wellbeing that are structural and economic in order to challenge economic paradigms. If we were looking at most important things for wellbeing, social relationships and communities were very important. For example, asking do you have people to rely on in times of need links strongly to wellbeing.

Question – What is the correlation between temporary contracts and wellbeing – is there a difference between generations? Or is it the same? How would this effect policy?

AQ: I don’t know because the negative impacts of wellbeing are so broad that our data wouldn’t be precise enough to determine irregularities between age groups.

Question: Can we be more innovative in our responses to this? Do you see Universal Basic Income having an impact on wellbeing?

AQ: UBI Makes sense as a policy response, but I’m concerned about evidence on wellbeing. People get a lot of wellbeing from work, and it could have a bad effect. There needs to be a bigger shift in society to make sure people don’t end up isolated

We should think about how we can own the platforms we rely on and think of much more collective models of local economic activity?

There’s also also questions of how to promote solidarity in that sense. UBI tries to equalise purchasing power, but we need to be careful that whatever structures we put in place and make sure they foster solidarity, and not only individual consumption.

Question – Is there a danger of concentrating too much on individual wellbeing, as opposed to group wellbeing? Is there a danger that if we want to listen to how people define their wellbeing, we endanger other people’s’ wellbeings?

AQ: There certainly are potential problems over how people define wellbeing. For example, a wellbeing evidence report was done about Heathrow expansion and it basically concluded holidays were good for wellbeing. It didn’t look at who can take holidays, future generations or local communities – so yes, there are definitely challenges in how wellbeing is defined and implemented.

Question – A lot of IGP students would like to go into the transformative sector later. What is NEF’s theory of change? How do you locate yourself within this ecosystem of actors working towards similar goals?

AQ: Our theory of change is that we are facing more of a crisis than we ever have done. The current economic paradigm is crumbling, and we’re seeing a much clearer message from people around the  country that the current system is not working. Now is the time to make changes, but the challenge with the Think Tank model is that it’s dead. It won’t create change. There is so much disconnect between people and the governing powers that have the ability to make change. So we need to still think how to make change within that system, but we also need to start making the change anyway, regardless of what’s happening at a Westminster level.

For example, we are mapping unused space to think about how to create community led housing projects.  

NEF have also set up the New Economy Organisers Network – network of people campaigning for a sustainable and inclusive economy