COMMENT:

Strange times. We read of a meth epidemic spreading, a forecast that two million Kiwis will be clinically obese by 2038, and news we are the third fattest country. I read we have the highest rate of homelessness amongst developed nations. Earlier, there were reports of our world-leading teen suicide rate, and an imprisonment rate second only to the United States.

So Clean & Green is looking more like Pasted & Wasted. But how do we measure up against our own history? I have made some comparisons with the state of our nation half a century ago, around 1970.

First, P hadn't been invented but we were smoking a lot more cigarettes. Obesity trebled to 30 per cent [!] of the population between 1977 and 2013. Homelessness was not even measured in 1970, but grew 25 per cent just between the 2006 and 2013 censuses. Suicide rates increased moderately (26 per cent); imprisonment immoderately, from 75 inmates per 100,000 population in 1967 to 214 per 100,000 in 2017.

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Unemployment rates averaged well below 0.5 per cent 50 years ago, now we are pleased if we get close to 4 per cent.

Numbers of working-age adults on a benefit (not counting pensions) have exploded, from about 40,000 in 1968 to 270,000-plus in March. And the 1971 Census found just 10 per cent of families with children were one-parent households. By 2013, it was 28 per cent.

All sad and worrying. But why do I say strange? Isn't general societal decay the new normal these days? Perhaps, but there are anomalies.

First, there is the GDP puzzle. Gross domestic product has exactly doubled over half a century, from $25,000 per person in 1967 to $50,000 in 2017, measured in today's prices. So, how do you think you would get by now on half your current income, as your demographic counterpart did in 1967?

Yet that counterpart was more likely than you to have a stable job, be able to support a family on that income, own a house, and be in a stable, long-term relationship. Bottom line: GDP is pretty much useless as a measure of well-being, and politicians and others should stop obsessing about it.

What really is a useful measure of well-being is reported subjectively in various "happiness" surveys. And here is the strange bit. Despite all our problems, we are remarkably jolly - eighth happiest of 152 nations, according to the 2018 World Happiness Report.

We score highly because of being blessed with two of the key determinants of well-being: we are third in the world (behind Finland and Iceland) when it comes to answering "Yes" to the question: If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help? And fourth in expressing freedom to choose what to do with our lives.

These can be the building blocks of a better future, but we must act soon. My view is that our history shows the necessity of well-paid, stable jobs for all adults who want them. This will require not more government but less, but it will also need, as Rob Campbell called for in a recent Herald, a major attitude change in the business sector and other things I have not got space to go into here.

A columnist, Matt Heath, has reported he and his dad sorted out the meaning of life while sitting in traffic for 33 minutes. Meaning comes from "knowing you have something positive to achieve in the near future and then doing it".

My baby boomer generation grew up with that attitude all our lives. We owe it to our children and our children's children to give them hope for their futures. Then watch the suicide rate sag.

Tim Hazledine is a professor of economics at Auckland University.