10/20/2011 12:01 EDT | Updated 12/19/2011 05:12 EST

Canadian Index Of Wellbeing Shows 15 Years Of Economic Growth Means Little In Everyday Lives (VIDEO)


OTTAWA - A generation of solid economic growth has meant little in the everyday lives of most Canadians, according to a new index of wellbeing.

The finding is a yellow light for decision-makers that social unrest is just around the corner unless deep changes are made, warns Roy Romanow, the advisory board chairman of the University of Waterloo group that created the index.

The index suggests the middle class, in particular, is eroding.

"There are some very, very troubling signs," Romanow said in an interview.

"I think if we continue on this trajectory we're going to have bigger and bigger disparities. You can never build a solid political, social and economic community with wide disparities."

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing is meant to be GDP's alter ego, measuring the quality of life in society in ways gross domestic product does not.

The index has been years in the making, pulling together 64 indicators to track progress in areas such as community spirit, education, health, environment, leisure and democratic engagement.

While GDP measures what companies and government produce, the wellbeing index measures how Canada and its people are faring.

It shows that between 1994 and 2008, wellbeing improved by just 11 per cent. The economy over that period grew by 31 per cent.

So while investment and corporate activity were ticking along at a decent pace, Canadian households saw only minor improvements in their lifestyle.

"The divergence in the (index of wellbeing) and GDP tells us emphatically that we have not been making the right investments in our people and in our communities. And we have not been doing it for a long time," the report on the index says.

The index's subcomponents show that quality of life actually deteriorated over that time frame in areas such as the environment, leisure and culture, and time use.

Researchers noted that metal reserves are at rock-bottom, species abundance has declined, greenhouse-gas emissions have soared, and ground ozone has risen.

When it comes to leisure, Canadians are working out more and taking longer vacations, but they spend less time engaged in arts and culture.

Health care saw a slight gain — we're smoking less and getting our flu shots, but diabetes and depression were on the rise. Wealthier people had better health status.

Living standards rose 26.4 per cent, but at the expense of income inequality. The rich took the lion's share.

While parents are reading more to their young children and signing them up for all sorts of classes, kids are also spending more time in front of screens. And seniors are seeing less of their families.

In other words, a typical household is now working harder and longer to keep on track financially, at the expense of having free time with family and friends, enjoying arts and culture, and volunteering.

"Many Canadians are simply too caught up in a time crunch to enjoy leisure and culture activities in the company of friends and family. The question raised by the results of this domain: Is that progress?" the study asks.

On the positive side, the index also revealed that Canadians feel safer than in the 1990s, and feel a stronger sense of belonging to their community. The "community vitality" index rose 20.7 per cent over the 15 years.

Education has improved, especially with university graduation rates soaring. But our international rating has declined in literacy, math and science.

While Romanow, the former NDP premier of Saskatchewan, is the face of the new index, he says the work put into the index is far from political or ideological. Rather, the data is taken from Statistics Canada and elsewhere, collected and crunched by a wide variety experts in their field. The work is recognized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation as leading edge.

The policy prescriptions, however, point to failures at every level of government over the past couple of decades, Romanow says — adding that he, too, carries some of the blame.

"We all wear some of this."

Instead of focusing on redistributing wealth and building programs that improve quality of life for Canadians, governments are obsessed with juicing GDP, he said.

The result has been to whittle away at the vibrancy of the middle class, and undermine core Canadian values that encourage individual effort, in part, through redistribution of wealth, Romanow said.

"I think this is a yellow light. A cautionary light," he added. "We want to be able to make sure that ... our societal values are not diminished here."