Wall Street Journal
SYDNEY: A fading mining boom may be taking the gloss off Australia’s resource-rich economy but the country has retained the title of happiest industrialized nation in the world.
That’s according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index, which ranked the world’s developed economies on criteria such as jobs, income, environment and health.
Australia kept the top spot for the third year running, ahead of Sweden—also known for its high living standards and robust economy—and Canada, a rival resource-exporting nation that, like Australia, has reaped the benefits of increasing Asian demand for raw materials.
The upbeat outlook comes as policy makers in Australia try to rebalance the economy, the world’s 12th largest, away from a heavy reliance on mining and energy exports toward growth in manufacturing, construction, and consumer spending.
Australia has the highest cumulative rank out of 34 industrialized countries in the OECD’s Better Life Index.
The Top 10
The OECD’s Better Life Index ranks the world’s developed economies on quality-of-life criteria.
6. United States
8. The Netherlands
10. United Kingdom
The OECD survey of 34 industrialized nations didn’t award an overall top ranking. But if each of the 11 categories in the survey is given equal weight, Australia’s cumulative rank rises to No. 1, according to the OECD website.
“It’s the quality of life that one can enjoy here,” said Gaurav Chawla, 27, a careers adviser who moved to Sydney from New Delhi seven years ago. “It’s more secure here, cleaner, less cars on the road and less pollution.”
Australia’s high rank in the OECD index—based on data from the United Nations, individual governments and other sources—is largely due to its economy.
The nation mostly sidestepped the economic woes afflicting much of the developed world after the financial crisis and has expanded for 21 years straight without a recession.
Unemployment stood at 5.5% in April from 5.6% in March, compared with 12.1% in the euro zone.
“There is no one under the age of 40 now who has experienced a recession as an adult member of the workforce,” said Saul Eslake, an economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in Sydney.
It isn’t just current residents who see Australia’s appeal.
The government has so far attracted 170 applicants, believed to be mostly from China, to a new program to develop foreign investment by offering overseas millionaires the right of residency in return for a portion of their wealth.
A record 5.7 million foreigners visited the country last year, led by tourists from the U.S. and China, even as the Australian dollar traded at close to 30 year highs.
There are weaknesses, though. Consumer confidence remains in the doldrums even after the central bank this month lowered interest rates to a record low 2.75%, adding to a string of rate-cuts since late 2011 designed to spur activity in weaker parts of the economy such as retail sales and housing.
Households blame the poor mood on a rising cost of living, an unpopular government, and growing signs a long mining boom is nearing an end.
While the OECD survey found that Australians rank their life-satisfaction at 7.2 out of 10, higher than the average of 6.6, the reading is below levels recorded in Mexico, Norway and neighboring New Zealand.
Australia also ranks poorly in terms of work-life balance with more than 14% of employees working very long hours, well above the OECD average of 9%.
And, somewhat surprisingly for a country famed for its beaches and barbecues, Aussies spend slightly less time on leisure activities and personal care—eating and sleeping—than their overseas peers.
The average household net wealth is estimated at US$32,178, well below the OECD average of US$40,516.
The study finds a significant disparity in living standards, with the top 20% of Australia’s population living off an estimated US$58,409 per year compared with US$10,323 for the bottom 20%.
“The overall Australian way seems to be happy go lucky, but that’s not always the case,” said Ivana Mrsic, 18, a music student from Botany Bay, a suburb in Sydney’s south.
Still, any pessimism in the Pacific nation of 23 million people could be overdone in the context of the economic hardship being endured elsewhere, said Bank of America-Merrill Lynch’s Mr. Eslake.
“It’s easy for us to lose sight here in Australia of how difficult economic conditions have been in other OECD countries,” he said.
While locals complain of living costs, Australian households on average spend 19% of their disposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, below the OECD’s average of 21%. And 85% of Australian respondents said they were in good health, well above the survey average of 69%.
The negatives in Australia are more than offset by the beach lifestyle and climate, said Geraldine Alvarez, 33, who moved to Sydney from the Philippines two decades ago.
“It’s very relaxing and laid back,” she said.