For decades, economists have measured a country’s wealth by the size of the gross domestic product or GDP.

If we lived in a fair world, we would be gauging our wealth by adopting the GDP per capita formula. Policymakers, politicians, and economists do not like unstructured sets of indicators. They prefer to encapsulate their verdict on how well off we all are by referring to long-established economic indicators.

Many, of course, measure their well-being by other means. Apart from academics and politicians, few people equate their happiness or misery with the GDP growth or decline at any given time. Politicians know that to capture the mood of people that vote them in power, they need to speak on issues that people relate to and understand. So the academic world has come up with a new index that is still structured but includes social and environmental elements that matter to most people.

In the UK the New Economics Foundation introduced the concept of sustainable economic well-being. The foundation measures this phenomenon by an index that includes elements that in theory indicate an improvement in the quality of life of people. Positive factors include personal consumer expenditure, public expenditure and value of domestic labour and volunteering, while the harmful aspects concentrate on income inequality, costs of environmental degradation and depreciation of natural capital.

Some may argue that such an index contains too many subjective elements, even if it is still structured. Monetising social and environmental issues will never be easy as we all give different values to a field that remains unbuilt in the midst of an urban jungle, or agree on a notional monetary cost of crime, divorce and unequal income distribution.

Visionary political leaders consider sustainable economic well-being as essential for policy making as economic growth. As our economy continues to grow, our policymakers need to start asking themselves whether they will continue to feed us economic statistics that ignore any measure of social and environmental well-being.

Many feel, for instance, that increasing commuting difficulty hurts their quality of lives – an impact that no one has so far made a credible attempt to measure. The pollution caused by traffic gridlock and the effectiveness of measures taken to mitigate this daily health hazard for all of us are similarly not gauged by any authority.

My primary concern is about the widening income gap of families

Our society is changing fast. We are a more liberal community than we were 50 years ago. More tolerance of diversity has replaced absolute moral standards that prevailed decades ago.

The role of women in our society is being given more importance, even if there is so much more that we can improve in this area. This progress has had a cost. Males are no longer the only breadwinners in the typical Maltese family of the 21st century. With more women leaving home to work, the work-life balance has become a severe challenge. Economic wealth has increased as a result of this evolution. But do we understand the social cost that we have to pay collectively as more families break down because of pressures to increase income to afford the lifestyle that many desire?

The steady erosion of the limited rural areas and countryside in a densely built and overpopulated island is a significant cause of concern to those who take the long-term view on the future of our society.

For some, the sight of cranes in most of our towns and villages, the ubiquitous concrete mixers, the trucks loaded with the rubble of demolished old houses and the booming trade in building materials are all signs of economic progress. Many others fret about the cost that future generations have to pay for this so-called progress but are unable to put their finger on any statistics that attempt to monetise the effect of the urban spread that seems to have no limits.

My primary concern is about the widening income gap of families. We are not a poor country – we are rich in human resources, and we are a rather homogeneous community. We have unenviable performance as measured in most Eurostat educational statistics.

Admittedly, it is time to gauge the cost of a growing underclass of families that find themselves in the poverty trap because of failures in our educational and social support systems. The children of these families are a precious resource.

The time was never more right to start looking beyond GDP growth when discussing the future of our society. This is the approach that characterises good political strategy.

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