The world’s population is better off than it was 200 years ago, according to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That conclusion may be no surprise for most people, but the survey’s panoramic view of how people live across the globe revealed a complexity about progress and wellbeing that is important to consider. Humanity’s progress in general is still undermined by disparities.

The survey moved away from past markers of progress — primarily economic ones such as GDP — to get a better sense of the real experiences in people’s lives. Because of that, no clear sense of a world greatly improved can be ascertained from the study, though some conservative commentators have interpreted the results as a pat on the back for humanity’s self-improvement.

Progress in many areas of life such as life expectancy, educational attainment and wages was marred by a growing disparity between rich and poor, and a lack of progress in wellbeing for all too many of the world’s people. Life expectancy has improved markedly since 1890 — when it was an average of 40 years in Western Europe. Nowadays in most countries, life expectancy is 60 to 70, except in many African countries, and specific spots around the world with poor health care and ongoing violence.

Gender differences also show a complex pattern of progress and stagnation. Men and women have moved gradually toward parity in levels of health, socio-economic status and political rights, according to the study. However, in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, gender equality remains hindered. After the collapse of the communist countries in 1989, gender equality worsened, but gradually began to improve.

As for Japan, poor scores were recorded in areas such as health, work-life balance, subjective wellbeing and civic engagement. In those categories, Japan was ranked among the bottom performers of the world, despite a relatively higher level of wellbeing than most countries. Housing, environmental quality and social connections also fell below the world averages. Japan ranked high for education and skills, income and wealth and personal security, even though the number of households in poverty kept rising.

Education was one area where some progress has been attained for the majority of the world. The study found that raising educational levels was closely connected to improving income levels and the overall sense of wellbeing. Education continues to be a major force to improve people’s lives everywhere.

The survey’s results were highly mixed, which is no surprise, given the diversity between countries, but one conclusion seems certain: Investing in the areas that affect people’s lives, such as education, health care and public security, most directly brings tremendous benefits.

As large numbers of people continue to live in poverty, with few rights and little hope, governments and citizens should pay heed to the survey’s findings.

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