What makes life meaningful in the rich world?

A survey shows that priorities are changing, as people remember what's important to humanity

BATH, ENGLAND - APRIL 21:  Visitors enjoy the sunshine as they swim in the rooftop pool of the Thermae Bath Spa on April 21, 2009 in Bath, England. Despite the global economic downturn, visitors to the historic Unesco World Heritage city's attractions - including the 40million GBP Spa development and the only place in Britain where you can bathe in natural hot spring waters - have held steady, helped in part by the weakness of the pound encouraging foreigners to visit Britain, and British holidaymakers to stay at home. In 2007, nearly 4 million visitors earned the city's tourism industry 432 million GBP and early indicators suggest that the figures will be very similar for this year.  (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  WK30AU-TR-THARMAESPA02.jpg

Restless workers are one great product of the pandemic, as priorities shift for many who now reassess how they live their lives. Surveys are showing a new focus on well-being, family and nature across many countries.

With Europe having moved into a new phase of lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions last week, there are straws of comfort for those facing another period of confinement. This restless urge is also likely to be a driver for the mobilisation on climate change that was the most promising outcome of the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow.

Last week, the US-based Pew Research Centre issued the findings of a 17-country poll that illustrates the emerging trends. It sought an update on the question "what makes life meaningful" for people in advanced economies from New Zealand through Germany and the US. A shift away from the simple shibboleth that life is a quest for happiness is certainly detectable in the results.

The most common answer was family with respondents citing this as high as 56 per cent in Australia. In fact, 14 out of the 17 nations put this top. Another top polling answer was health with 48 per cent in Spain. Jobs are, of course, a major part of any life. The Great Resignation in the US – 4.4 million people quit their existing jobs in August alone – is a reflection of the 11 million openings in the economy.

It is also a demonstration of how keen people are for a personal reset. In the Pew survey, occupations and careers were ranked top by at least one quarter of respondents with the Italians topping the table as 43 per cent named it as a priority.

There should be hope, too, that jobs and well-being, another priority in many countries, become more closely in sync. A survey conducted in 2016 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that more than 25 per cent of workers in the UK were under-qualified for their jobs, compared with about 12 per cent who were over-qualified. If that looks like a recipe for stress and misery, there are probably good reasons for it.

Gaps were lower in other surveyed economies such as the US and Germany, but there were always more people lesser qualified than working beneath their skills grade. Mismatches like this were becoming normalised before the pandemic and it would be a good test of the new era if the gap was eliminated.

The one third of the countries that put health in the top three are not simply reacting to the Covid-19 pandemic. The respondents in these countries are no more likely to refer to the coronavirus than peers in the other states. Age divides also throw up different priorities. Younger people are more likely to rank friends alongside jobs and hobbies as the most important source of meaning in life.

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There is a groundswell for those concerned by climate change to build on

Nature ranked highly for a cluster of countries where at least one in 10 cited respect for the natural order. Overall, it ranked in the top eight as a source of meaning in life. Although the survey was conducted in the spring of 2021 – well before Cop26 in Glasgow – it shows there is a groundswell for those concerned by climate change to build on.

No less a figure than French President Emmanuel Macron issued a series of tweets during the week, with the message that there was progress in Glasgow. He said there was regrets but the world "owed it to the youth" not to let go on the progress made. For Mr Macron, there was a real advantage in the summit outcomes. He believed there would be an acceleration in the reduction of carbon because all states were committed to it.

International funding for certain types of fossil fuel energy products would end. Methane reductions put in the pipeline by 100 countries would bend the curve of the projected global temperature rise. And $12 billion would be mobilised to protect and restore the great carbon sinks, forests, from deforestation. Another highlight for the French was the backing for the Great Green Wall to restore the ecological balance in the Sahel region of Africa.

British officials came out of the Glasgow meetings convinced to that the goal of holding the rise in global warming to 1.5°C was still alive. In terms of the commitments they saw, the hosts believe the "dial has been turned down to about 2°C".

The focus now turns to Cairo in 2022 and the UAE in 2023. The organisers of those summits can be convinced that there is a change of attitudes and priorities around the world. With conviction people can get involved in changing climate policies. Post-pandemic, the UN climate process with its roots in Kyoto and Rio summits is on the move again to address the pressures on the planet.

Expect more surveys to show radical changes in how people prioritise both individual lives, family lifestyles and what they want for a better world.

It's not only the job churn that will stand out. The restless impetus will be there for climate change solutions as well.

Published: November 20th 2021, 2:00 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.