RICHARD ECKERSLEY. What most concerns us about our personal lives and the societies we live in?


Our quality of life is about much more than our standard of living.

Standard of living is about material wellbeing, and is commonly measured as per-capita income or GDP, the dominant political indicator of human progress. Quality of life is the degree to which people enjoy – or societies provide – the living conditions (social, economic, cultural and environmental) that are conducive to total wellbeing (physical, mental, social and spiritual).

In other words, quality of life is a matter of how people feel about their lives as well as the material conditions in which they live.

In a new study*, two University of Wollongong researchers and I examined people’s levels of concern about a range of societal and personal issues characterising modern life, and the association between concern and personal stress. The study is based on a 2013 survey of over 2,000 people in four countries – the US, UK, Canada and Australia – but has only just been published.

Our study found that, on average, 49% of respondents across the four countries were moderately or seriously concerned about 19 personal issues, with health and wellbeing, family matters, and cost of living and financial security topping the list. On average, 41% were moderately or seriously concerned about 23 societal issues, with social and political issues ranking ahead of economic and environmental matters, followed by war and terrorism, and technological changes (crime and violence topped the list with 58% concerned; climate change ranked tenth with 44% concerned).

Higher concerns, especially personal concerns, were generally associated with higher personal stress (but, interestingly, sometimes less); younger generations were more stressed than older generations.

The level and ranking of concerns may have changed since our survey, but recent studies have strengthened and updated the general picture of people’s concern about their lives and discontent with their societies. For example, two global surveys published in 2017, covering both developed and developing nations, found that, overall, majorities of citizens believed ‘the system’ was not working, no longer served them, and favoured the rich and powerful. Corruption, globalisation and technological change were weakening trust in global institutions, one of the studies found, and there was growing despair about the future, and a lack of confidence in the possibility of a better life for one’s family.

Americans were the most concerned on many of the societal issues, especially political and economic issues, where US scores were about 20 percentage points higher than those for Australia or Canada. For example, the proportions moderately or seriously concerned and countries were:

  • [All issues: US 47%, UK 38%, Canada 40%, Australia 37%.]
  • The state of national politics: US 65%, UK 53%, Canada 42%, Australia, 48%.
  • Corruption: US 64%, UK 45%, Canada 47%, Australia 39%.
  • Economic depression: US 57%, UK 48%, Canada 38%, Australia 36%.
  • Wars, weapons of mass destruction: US 45%, UK 35%, Canada 34%, Australia 29%.

Such findings anticipated the political upheavals of the past two years, notably the election of Donald Trump as president of the US.

Societal concerns generally increased with age:

  • [All issues: Gen Y (born 1978-1994) 39%; Gen X (born 1962-1977) 38%, Boomers (born 1946-1961) 43%; pre-Boomers (born 1945 or earlier) 48%.]
  • State of national politics: Gen Y 43%, Gen X 47%, Boomers 59%, Pre-boomers 74%.
  • Corruption: Gen Y 41%, Gen X 44%, Boomers 54%, Pre-boomers 71%.
  • Breakdown of society’s moral values: Gen Y 46%, Gen X 47%, Boomers 54%, Pre-boomers 61%.
  • Wars, weapons of mass destruction: Gen Y 33%, Gen X 30%, Boomers 39%, Pre-boomers 50%.

There were few significant country differences with personal concerns, suggesting these transcend national boundaries to reflect modernity more broadly. Personal concerns decreased with age. While some of these decreases, such as with financial security, education, and finding a job, are to be expected, others are surprising, especially with ‘existential ‘issues:

  • [All issues: Gen Y 58%, Gen X 49%, Boomers 43%, Pre-boomers 35%].
  • Mental and emotional health: Gen Y 60%, Gen x 51%, Boomers 46%, Pre-boomers 39%.
  • Failure/disappointment: Gen Y 58%, Gen X 42%, Boomers 31%, Pre-boomers 25%.
  • Loneliness: Gen Y 53%, Gen X 38%, Boomers 35%, Pre-boomers 27%.
  • Emptiness: Gen Y 50%, Gen X 33%, Boomers 32%, Pre-boomers 23%.
  • Death: Gen Y 48%, Gen X 42%, Boomers 39%, Pre-boomers 32%.

The generational labels used in our study signify both different age groups and different generations. The study cannot distinguish between the two: between age differences and generational differences. The differences could simply reflect different life stages and pre-occupations. However, the relatively linear gradients in levels of personal concern across the groups suggest that they could, at least to some degree, reflect generational changes associated with modernisation.

Other research supports this possibility. For example, a 2012 study of changes in Finnish students’ fears for the future between 1983 and 2007, found similar differences in adolescents over time that we found across ages. The authors conclude that perceptions of risk have become more individualised, increasing a sense of uncertainty, uneasiness and insecurity. Adolescents’ images of the future act as a mirror of the times, they say, reflecting the values and ethos of society and its social and cultural norms and their changes over time. In other words, even personal concerns are shaped by social conditions; they tell us something about the quality of life of modern societies.

Being concerned is not necessarily a bad thing. Individually, concern could motivate people to change an unsatisfactory personal situation. Socially, high levels of concern could be a spur to right perceived wrongs, and so drive social change. However, if high levels of concern reflect a sense of pessimism and demoralisation, a loss of vitality and confidence, this could erode not only people’s own wellbeing, but their faith in society and its future, so reducing social cohesion and resilience.

Progress should be about improving quality of life, not standard of living. Yet the models and measures of progress we use – and which underpin our politics – neglect important aspects of quality of life, including public perceptions. When our governments and leaders ignore the public mood, we get what we’ve got today. At worst, this mismatch or disjunction will contribute to times of turmoil and chaos, and derail our attempts to deal with more tangible global threats like climate change; at best, it will force the deeper debate about our lives and the future that we urgently need.

* Randle, M, Eckersley, R, Miller L (2017). Societal and personal concerns, their associations with stress, and the implications for progress and the future. Futures. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2017.07.004 or www.richardeckersley.com.au.

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on progress, sustainability, culture, health and wellbeing.

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