Eurofound examines EU quality of life

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Four years after its first survey, Eurofound is preparing its latest study on the quality of life in Europe, to see whether changes in public policies have affected citizens' lifestyles.

Robert Anderson, a co-ordinator of the 'Living Conditions' research programme at the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) monitors quality of life and living conditions in the EU. The first survey on Quality of life in Europe was published by the Eurofound in 2003. The field work for the second is set to be conducted in September, October, November 2007 in the EU-27 and in Croatia, Norway and Turkey.

"As the foundation has conducted, since 1990, surveys on working conditions in Europe, we thought that there was a place for another one," explains Anderson. "To assess peoples' living conditions and opportunities, we then came up with the concept of quality of life, which allows us to think in terms of opportunities for people to realise their potential and to achieve their ambitions." 

How does Eurofound define quality of life?

We produced a report in 2002-2003 on what the concept of life was about and argued that it was more than objective situations. We also looked at peoples' subjective appraisal of their own situation. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, is paying more attention to issues such as mental health and is doing more lifestyle-related surveys. 

We looked at quality of life in terms of subjective and objective appraisals across a range of domains: economic and employment opportunities, family and social - which we thought was under-researched - and education. We did not think that we would focus that much on housing, but it turned out that some of the material on accommodation is one of the most interesting issues, as we have found that health, income and housing are really key-components in peoples' quality-of-life assessments. 

Having said that, owning a house is very different in eastern and western Europe. In the UK and Ireland, for example, there is a tradition of mortgages and credits and spending 25 years paying for a house. In Eastern Europe, on the whole, accommodation was transferred or given, during the transition, to people. So, you have very high rates of home ownership, but frequently houses and flats that were often in a poor state of repair. The problem was that people were required to spend very little to buy their home, but they were then left with the responsibility of maintainance. So, there is a problem concerning the quality of housing in many new member states. 

Our focus is on life quality, but also on the quality of society. We ask people questions about tensions in their society and their satisfaction in public services, areas in which we did not have any comparative data previously. We will use the same questions again because they proved to be very interesting and useful, and we hope that one of the things we can spot is change over time. 

Can quality-of-life definition be the same in all countries, or do cultural differences and traditions affect peoples' assessments? 

I'm sure that cultural traditions very much affect responses to some survey questions. But the quality of life question, which asks people in general 'how satisfied are you with your life' appears to work very well. One can see a very clear relationship with independent variables: satisfaction is strongly related to the GDP of a country. Within countries, it is related to income and health. 

So does money make happiness? 

In our survey, we asked how our 19 indicators of life quality are related to income and found that GDP levels between countries are important. If you compare the highest-income earners in four poor countries with the lowest income-earners rich countries, the quality of life is better for the latter. So, country matters and it is better to be poor in a rich country than rich in a poor country. The reason for this is the quality of society, environment, services and infrastructures. This is quite an important point. It is not just about money, but money makes a difference both in terms of GDP and between income groups in a country.

What is the main challenge facing the EU with regards quality of life and what should, accordingly, be the EU's political priority with this regard? 

At a very general level, it is very difficult to change people's assessments of their quality of life. Simply improving GDP and living standards itself does not improve or makes only very slow changes to peoples’ assessment of their quality of life. But, for example, within countries some groups consistently report a poorer quality of life, these are people who are unemployed - across all member states. And we do not ask them to compare themselves with those who have a job, but just ask how satisfied they are and then examine their responses. 

In the new member states, older people report a poorer quality of life. In the EU-15 countries, however, age is associated with more life- satisfaction. This is in part because of good social protection and pension systems. In the new member states, I think that older people have not found that they good pension systems, and they feel that the changes in the past 10-15 years are really improving opportunities for young people to be mobile and so on, but that they are not doing enough for them. And they have been given these properties which they have too little money to improve. That's one way of looking at it. 

Another is to examine what people say really matters the most to their quality of life – and it seems that social relations, particularly trusthealth  and money, are key. As to health, people feel healthy, they tend to say that they have more life satisfaction. We know that the quality of the health systems and access to services is a major challenge in some countries. 

What role do the differences in quality of life between member states play in the social cohesion of Europe and the EU? 

People who do research can't work in 27 countries collecting data on all individual countries. So, they are trying to see whether countries have common factors. Administrative distinctions are easy to make between the EU-15 and EU-10. We found relatively consistent differences, but some of the EU-10 were more like the EU-15 and some in the EU-15 more like the EU-10. So, it is important to say that there is this intermingling of countries. 

Many people are now looking at ways of grouping the countries. Different ways have already been proposed for this in terms of welfare systems. With regard to cohesion – it is about looking at what the countries share and highlighting the major differences. With regards welfare systems, the differences are not so great between, for example, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, but it is true that there are big differences between most of the new member states and the EU-15. So, social cohesion is about trying to reduce differences

Do the varying states of life-quality in the EU-27 affect EU policies? 

Of course. You can't have the same policy for each country if the situation is different. It is a bit like 'equalising opportunities' – it is not about giving everybody the same opportunity, it is about offering opportunities in relation to need. The same policy does not work for two people in different situations. For example, if you think of younger and older workers, you need very different strategies to improve their respective job opportunities and employability -– and this applies to countries as well. We don't expect that one model will suit all countries, but that doesn't mean that we can't learn from each other. 

Take the fashionable idea of flexicurity – even there, everybody is saying that we agree on certain principles, but one fixed model does not suit every country. 

In this regard, it is important to know that the Commission has recently started something called social-reality stocktaking. It is about peoples' assessment of their quality of life, their well-being, life satisfaction and how these relate to public-policy domains – whether it is care, employment, equal opportunities, and how changes in these domains should impact peoples' assessment of their quality of life. 

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