Wellbeing economy as cornerstone of future of Europe

Jussi Ahokas
Chief Economist, SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health

Päivi Rouvinen-Wilenius
Senior Adviser, SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health

Online publication Future of Europe
© SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health, February 2019

The future choices made by Europe will come under bigger pressure than ever before. For example, the climate change, differences in the economic growth of the member states and the movements of the civil society challenge the EU to consider a progressive strategy for the EU countries. The challenges can be met by creating a clear vision for Europe and by presenting realistic steps to obtain it. The European Parliament elections, the new Commission and updating the strategy of the EU all come at an appropriate time. The wellbeing economy should be the starting point of the future strategy. It means that increase in individual resources and participation of people will be emphasised; fortifying the basic elements of wellbeing and good life. The civil society is a major player in the wellbeing economy, and the strengthening thereof should hold a key place in the strategy.

New strategy of Europe

The future of the European Union will be a fundamental issue in the next few years, with the European Parliament elections and the appointing of the new Commission coming up in 2019. The Europe 2020 strategy is also ending. With accelerating climate change, fluctuating economic development and movements of the civil societies, more external pressure will be put on the future choices defining the direction of Europe than ever before during the existence of the Union.

Even if the external challenges are undisputed, it is still possible to meet them. Challenges can be tackled by creating a clear vision for Europe and by presenting realistic goals to achieve that vision. In this sense, the elections, the new Commission and updating the strategy of the European Union come at the right moment. Finland plays an important part in this process, because it is Finland’s turn to be the President of the Union right after the elections held in the spring of 2019.

Vision of wellbeing economy

Wellbeing economy is a term coined by SOSTE and Finnish social and health NGOs. The wellbeing economy may be perceived both as a vision of the future economic and social model and as a certain, already existing sector of our society. When the goal of some societal action is to increase wellbeing and to improve the prospects of a good life it takes place in the sphere of wellbeing economy. Hence, wellbeing and good life are the main goals of a wellbeing economy. The other objectives such as economic growth, expansion of welfare state or deepening of democracy are considered subordinate to it.

A wellbeing economy is based on a broad concept of wellbeing. In the wellbeing economy thinking, wellbeing is considered to consist of individual resources and participation. Individual resources include sufficient health, reasonable material resources, social wellbeing and empowering social relationships, self-confidence, trust in community one lives in and critical consciousness. Participation refers to the opportunity of people to participate in the decision-making of one’s own community, and in the development of the community, as its full members. Building the wellbeing economy ultimately consists of strengthening the above factors and investing in them.

Wellbeing economy is based on a broad concept of wellbeing: in the wellbeing economy thinking, wellbeing is considered to consist of individual resources and participation.

The vision of a wellbeing economy is hence a picture of a future society where the wellbeing of people and securing the prospects of a good life for all are the goals of public policy. The vision of a wellbeing economy can be described in one sentence as follows,”Working together to build a good life for everyone”

European Union as builder of wellbeing economy

When the future strategy of the European Union is defined for the next decade, the rationale of the wellbeing economy should be at the heart of it. This means that the strategy of the European Union should focus on the increase of individual resources and participation, i.e. enhancing the basic elements of wellbeing and a good life.

In addition to emphasising the goals of a wellbeing economy in the strategy, the promotion of these goals should be much more prominent in EU politics as well. Some objectives relating to the wellbeing economy have been present in the Europe 2020 strategy, but for example in the political steering of the member states, in the EU fiscal framework or in the EU legislation, the promotion of the goals has not been sufficiently noted. Economic policy steering and goals related to economy have been taken much more seriously than social goals or objectives relating to climate change.

It would be essential to decisively expand political coordination outside economic policies and to oblige the member states to commit to the goals of social, health, equality, employment and climate policies more firmly than before. This would require a comprehensive examination of EU strategy and steering. Also, more attention should be paid to the cross effects of the different policy areas. If it is possible to dissolve the boundaries of policies and administration, the EU policy would become more coherent. Then it would be possible to pay attention to all future goals at the same time – including those subject to wellbeing.

It would be an essential element of the new strategy that it would emphasise investments in wellbeing as underlying a sustainable, stable and equal economy and society. Wellbeing investments are social inputs which either produce wellbeing directly or create structures that support the prospects of wellbeing and good life in the long run. Wellbeing investments may be made in many sectors and on many levels of the society. They may be monetary or non-monetary but a common trait is that their attainment is primarily evaluated through wellbeing benefits.

The more wellbeing investments are made in a society, the more likely the basic elements of wellbeing and good life are to strengthen. The volume of investments is not always decisive, however. It is important that the society can create prospects for wellbeing investments which meet the wellbeing needs of people efficiently and timely. For example, investments in service structures may improve the availability of education, social security and availability of healthcare services. Such investments increase human capital and thence fortify the prospects of wellbeing.

It is important that society can create prospects for wellbeing investments which meet the needs of people efficiently and timely.

By emphasising the importance of cross-sector and multilevel wellbeing investments in its strategy and policy recommendations, the EU could steer and encourage the member states toward wellbeing investments or improve the prospects thereof in other ways. Wellbeing investments tend to create structures which in the long run reduce the need to increase social and health expenditure, increase the supply of labour and foster growth of productivity. For example, participation and trust in a community may result in a more sensible use of healthcare services, thus reducing the number of unnecessary visits to healthcare.

Wellbeing broadly understood is hence also capital for economic growth. Since today’s wellbeing creates the foundation for future wellbeing, even short-term investments may have far-reaching results. In other words, today’s wellbeing is capital for the future wellbeing.

Today’s wellbeing is the capital of future wellbeing.

The civil society plays a leading role in securing the wellbeing economy. The civil society has been born out of people’s desire to influence matters and to gather around common issues. Empowering, people-centred activities and participation characterise civil society. A democracy also needs a vital, effective civil society to function.

For the civil society and NGOs to properly function, we need social vision and strategy that recognise the meaning of participation and civil society. Since the European Union is the main social operator in Europe, fortifying civil society and NGOs should be central elements in its strategy. If the forthcoming strategy commits to promoting participation and inclusive economic development, the civil society, civic activities and the NGOs are a key area of investment and a resource to implement these goals.

Fortifying civil society and NGOs should be central elements in the EU strategy.

In recent times, strong protests have also been heard from the European civil societies. The consensus and unity of the past decades has been challenged. This should not be interpreted as ”decay” of the civil society but rather a message that in the future, Europe needs more mutual trust, participation and inclusive social and economic development. On the level of civil society, the EU should support local democratic structures and processes more strongly than before. The voice of the civil society should be heard in time and it should be loud enough; we cannot rely on individual technical solutions such as a European Citizens’ Initiative to suffice for hearing the civil society.

For example, the European Semester should hear and pay attention to the voice of civil society more broadly than before in all the member states. Goals aiming at the strengthening of trust and participation should be supported by various initiatives firming the structures of participation in the framework of the European Union as well. In this way, the work of the NGOs aiming at producing and distributing wellbeing and investing in it would be integrated into the EU policy, and the prospects for building a wellbeing economy would improve.

Future in our hands

Europe is faced with big choices. What kind of future will we embark on building and what are our policy choices for the forthcoming decades? We have proposed that the European Union would start building the future based on a vision of a wellbeing economy. This would mean that wellbeing objectives would become more prominent in EU policy and member states would be obliged to commit to the strategic choices of the Union in social, health and climate policy issues much more resolutely than before. This requires that the rhetoric of inclusive economic growth will lead to a genuinely inclusive economic policy and development. The objectives of sustainable development should also be emphasised.

We find that commitment to the vision of a wellbeing economy is possible European-wide, but it requires that the new members of the European Parliament, the new Commission, decision-makers in the member states and the civil societies commit to the common goals to a sufficient extent. The recent social transformations have broken the mutual trust in the EU countries, but we still believe that most Europeans will back up a future strategy that is well-articulated, inclusive and decisively committed to issues of sustainable development and equality. This is vital to ensure wellbeing and prospects of a good life in future Europe as well.

This is an article of the online publication Future of Europe.
© SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health, February 2019