Will Economic Growth Improve Our Health Without Greater Income Equality?

“This photograph was made in Birkenhead, not far from where the A41 finishes its journey from London. The image pays tribute to the river Mersey which historically helped bring wealth and status to the area. The photograph shows construction work taking place within the Cammell Laird shipyard, with the mausoleum to the Victorian industrialist and founder of the shipbuilding empire, John Laird, in the top left of the cemetery.” We are at a turning point in human history. For centuries the best way of improving the quality of life has been to raise material living standards. But we have now come to the end of what economic growth can do for developed countries. Measures of well-being or of happiness no longer rise with economic growth. Even though health goes on improving in rich countries, that improvement is no longer related to economic growth. We also know that rates of depression and anxiety have risen over the last fifty years or so.

Not only has economic growth in the rich countries ceased to bring the social benefits it once brought (and continues to bring in poorer countries), but it now threatens the planet. We are therefore the first generation to have to find new ways of improving the real quality of life. The evidence suggests that we need to shift our attention away from increasing material wealth, to the social environment and the quality of social relations in our societies. For rich countries to get even richer makes little or no difference to the prevalence of health and social problems but the social problems which beset many rich societies are much more common in more unequal societies. Societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor are more cohesive: community life is stronger, levels of trust are higher and there is less violence. The vast majority of the population seem to benefit from greater equality.