Trend in dispersion of life-satisfaction in EU-nations 1973-1996

Ruut VeenhovenErasmus University Rotterdam and Utrecht University, The Netherlands,E-mail:
Published in German in: Wolfgang Glatzer, Roland Habich, Karl Ulrich Maier (Hrgs), Socialer Wandel und Gesellschaftliche Dauerbeobachtung. Festschrift für Wolfgang Zapf, Leske + Bundrich, 2002 Opladen, Deutschland, ISBN 3-8100-3368-5, pp.273-294

It is said that social inequality is returning in modern nations. This trend is seen to manifest in widening disparities in income in the late 20th century and attributed to neo-liberalism, globalization and immigration. This development is seen as a turn in the long-term trend towards a more civilized society.
This paper challenges that idea. It argues that the traditional indicators of inequality in nations fall short in several ways and cannot be meaningfully compared across time and nations. Instead it proposes to measure inequality in another way, not by differences in presumed chances for a good life, but by the dispersion of final outcomes of life. Inequality in nations is measured by the difference between citizens in satisfaction with their life as a whole. Standard deviations of life-satisfaction in EU nations are compared over the years 1973-1996.
It appears that the dispersion became smaller instead of larger. Comparison across nations shows also lower dispersion in the most modern nations. So the trend towards greater equality seems to persist. If there is any truth in the theory that access to scare resources became more unequal, that tendency must have been compensated in some way, possibly by greater equality in personal capabilities.

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