Beyond GDP: changing how we measure progress is key to tackling crises

‘GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile,’ said John F Kennedy. But what about the alternatives? Three economists weigh in

It’s an odd quirk of history that, on the first day of his ill-fated presidential campaign in March 1968, Robert F Kennedy chose to talk to his audience about the limitations of gross domestic product (GDP) – the world’s headline indicator of economic progress.

It’s strange that, despite that powerful speech, the main measure of progress in the world is still GDP growth. It is the measure of economic success. It is used to evaluate government policy. It is vital for political survival.

Kennedy’s speech inspired a host of critiques. It has been quoted by presidents and prime ministers as well as Nobel laureates. But GDP has survived to this point, more or less unscathed. Despite ever-growing concerns about the inability of national economies to deal with the multiple threats posed in climate change, spiralling energy cost, increasing inequality, and other factors, the urgent need to measure and define progress in a new way seems unarguable.

The good, the bad, and the missing

In simple terms, GDP is a measure of the size of a country’s economy: how much is produced, how much is earned, and how much is spent on goods and services across the nation. The monetary total, whether in dollars or euros, yuan or yen, is then adjusted for any general increase in prices to give a measure of ‘real’ economic growth over time. This is how governments evaluate their policies for economic growth.

Since 1953, GDP has been the main measure in a complex system overseen by United Nations. These accounts were developed during the Second World War. They were created to help determine how much money governments could spend on war efforts.

But in measuring the monetary value of economic activity, GDP can incorporate many of the ‘bads’ that detract from our quality of life. War, pollution, crime, prostitution, traffic congestion, disasters like wildfires and the destruction of nature – all can have a positive impact on GDP. But they are not components of economic success.

Contrary to popular belief, traffic jams or even war can be good news for GDP. Image: Denys Nevozhai

However, there are many aspects of our lives that are not included in this account. Inequality in our societies. The unpaid contributions. The labour of those who provide care for the elderly and young at their homes. The loss of biodiversity or natural resources. The value of data and many other digital services.

What lies outside of the market, including public services that are funded by taxation, is not measured in a metric monetary exchange. Kennedy was blunt: “[GDP] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

It’s a sentiment that has resonance half a century later. A UK academic tried to communicate to a public meeting about the dangers of leaving EU in a striking encounter during Brexit debate. The impact on GDP would dwarf any savings from the UK’s contributions to the EU budget, he told the audience. “That’s your bloody GDP!” shouted a woman in the crowd. “It’s not ours.” 

This perception of GDP as an indicator that is out of touch with reality could be one reason there is momentum for reform. If GDP is unable to reveal the crucial differences between the richest and the poorest members of society, it will invariably say little about the prospects that ordinary people face.

There are other reasons for a change of heart. The pursuit of GDP growth as a policy goal, and the impact that has on government, business and personal decision-making, has accompanied increasing devastation of the natural world, a loss of forests and habitats, the destabilisation of the climate, and near-meltdowns of the world’s financial markets. However, GDP has become an insufficient measure of technological transformation in society.

Its persistence as a measure for progress, despite its well-known limitations, is due to factors that are both technocratic and sociological. GDP is the most important measure in a complex system of national accounts. It has a technocratic simplicity and an analytical elegance that is unsurpassed by other measures. Its ability to simultaneously measure production output, consumption expenditure, and income in the economy is what gives it its authority.

GDP, like the stock market has a technocratic convenience to help it endure. Lo Lo

Despite its complexity, it still offers the deceptive simplicity that a single headline figure can be directly comparable year to year across countries. This is based on a simple (if not insufficient) idea that greater economic activity equals better life.

However, the combined technical authority and political usefulness of this idea has led to ‘path dependence’ and forms of social lock-in that are difficult to address without significant effort. Switching to an alternative is like switching from driving on one side to the other.

Yet, what we measure matters. And while we’re busy looking in the wrong direction, as Kennedy pointed out, bad things can happen. Kennedy’s campaign – and his critique of GDP – was cut cruelly short on 5 June 1968, when he was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet. Kennedy’s call for reform in how we measure progress (or lack thereof) has never been stronger, more than half a century after he died.

The problem with GDP is historical flaws

Over the centuries, society’s understanding of progress and measurement has changed significantly. Measurement of ‘the economy’ as a whole is a relatively modern, 20th-century concept, beginning with efforts by statisticians and economists such as Colin Clark and Simon Kuznets in the 1920s and 1930s to understand the impact of financial crisis and depression.

Kuznets is best known for his work with the Kuznets. curveIn describing the relationship between income inequality and GDP, he was especially concerned to develop a measure economic welfare rather that just activity. For example, he argued for omitting expenditures that were unwelcome necessities rather than services or goods consumers actively wanted – such as defence spending.

These earlier notions of one measure of economic welfare were absorbed by the Second World War, which overtook them. This led to what became modern gross national products (GNP) then GDP. The imperative – set out on the Allied side by John Maynard Keynes in his 1940 pamphlet How to Pay for the War – was measuring productive capacity, and the reduction in consumption required to have enough resources to support the military effort. Economic welfare was a peacetime concern.


The notion that more economic activity equals better life has been disproven. Image: Brooke Cagle

Post-war, unsurprisingly, US and British economists such as Milton Gilbert, James Meade and Richard Stone took the lead in codifying these statistical definitions through the UN – and its process for agreeing and formalising definitions in the system of national accounts (SNA) is still in place today. However, there have been many important inadequacies with the SNA as well as the GDP since at most the 1940s. These inadequacies have been widely discussed and documented.

Margaret Reid published her book in 1934. Economics of Household ProductionThe report, which highlighted the need to include unpaid labor in the home when considering economically useful activity, was published by.

The question of whether and how to measure the household and informal sectors was debated during the 1950s – particularly as this makes up a larger share of activity in low-income countries – but was omitted until some countries, including the UK, started to create household satellite accounts around 2000. Omitting unpaid work meant, for instance, that the UK’s increased productivity growth between the 1960s and 1980s was then overstated, because it in part reflected the inclusion of many more women in paid workThe contributions of these individuals were previously not included in the national GDP metric.


The GDP has historically failed in its responsibility for unpaid work such as childcare. Image: Sue Zeng

Another long-standing and well-known failure of GDP is its inability to account for environmental externalities, and the depletion or natural capital. The metric fails to account for many activities that do NOT have market prices. It also ignores the additional social costs of climate change, pollution, and other outputs that are associated with economic activities.

What’s more, the depletion or loss of assets such as natural resources (or indeed buildings and infrastructure lost in disasters) boosts GDP in the short term because these resources are used in economic activities, or because there is a surge in construction after a disaster. The long-term opportunities costs are not counted. This huge shortcoming was widely discussed in the context of landmark publications like the 1972 Limits to Growth reportFrom the Club of Rome and the 1987 Brundtland ReportFrom the World Commission on Environment and Development.

Accounting for nature has seen recent progress, as with household and informal activities. System of Environmental Economic Accounting(SEEA), and publication of regular (but distinct) statistics on natural resources in a number countries. The UKThis area has been a leader once again, while the US recently announcedIt would also follow this approach.

New challenges for the value of GDP

Other, less obvious problems with GDP have become more apparent in recent years. Although digitization has changed the way many people spend their leisure time and the way many businesses work, the transformations are not documented in official statistics.

Measuring innovation has always been tricky, because new goods or improved quality need to be incorporated into observable prices and quantities – and what is the metric for a unit of software or management consultancy? But it is harder now because many digital services are ‘free’ at point of use, or have the features of public goods in that many people can use them at the same time, or are intangible. For example, data is without doubt improving the productivity of companies that know how to use it to improve their services and produce goods more effectively – but how should a dataset’s value, or potential value, to society (as opposed to a big tech company) be estimated?


The digital economy offers free services, which is another flaw in GDP. Image: Nathana Reboucas

Recent workThe UK’s telecommunications service prices have shown that the sector’s output growth has been anywhere from 2% to 5% since 2010. about 0 per cent to 90 per centDepending on how the price index converts market prices to real (inflation adjusted) prices, it takes into account the economic value of our rapidly expanding use of data. Similarly, it is not obvious how to incorporate advertising-funded ‘free’ search, crypto currencies and NFTs in the measurement framework.

The key limitation of GDP, especially when it comes to its use as an indicator for social progress, lies in the fact that it does not provide a systematic account on income distribution. It is possible for the average or aggregate GDP of a country to rise even if a large portion of the population is poorer.

In recent decades, the average income has stagnated or fallen while those who are wealthy have become more prosperous. The USA is an example of this. Thomas Piketty and his colleaguesStudies have shown that the incomes of the top 0.001% of society increased by an average of 6 percent per year between 1980 and 2016. Real terms, income for the lowest 5 percent of society fell.

Many visions exist to replace GDP growth as the dominant definition for progress and better lives.

Given these many issues, it might seem surprising that the debate about ‘beyond GDP’ is only now – possibly – turning into actions to change the official statistical framework. Paradoxally, however, there has been a proliferation of alternative progress indicators.

These indices can be single or multi-indicator indices, or dashboards that display a wide range metrics. They are too diverse to reach consensus on a global method of measuring progress. They do not provide an economic framework to consider trade-offs among the different indicators or guidance on how to interpret indicators moving towards different directions. While there is a wealth of information, it cannot be compared to the clarity and simplicity of a single statistic on GDP.

Statistical measurement is like a technical standard such as voltage in electricity networks or the Highway Code’s rules of the road: a shared standard or definition is essential. While an overwhelming majority might agree on the need to go beyond GDP, there also needs to be enough agreement about what ‘beyond’ actually involves before meaningful progress on how we measure progress can be made.

Change behavior, not just what you measure

Many visions are available to replace GDP growth as a dominant definition of progress and better living. It has been reported that most people want a more equitable and sustainable future in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

It can sound simple to politicians. Writing in 2009, the then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy explained he had convened a commission – led by internationally acclaimed economists Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi – on the measurement of economic performance and social progress on the basis of a firm belief: that we will not change our behaviour “unless we change the ways we measure our economic performance”.

Sarkozy also promised to encourage other countries, international organisations, and to follow France’s example in implementing the program. his commission’s recommendationsA suite of measures that go beyond GDP. The ultimate goal was to build a new global economic and social order.

France was a pioneer in post-GDP thinking. Image: Dimitri Iakymuk

In 2010, the recently-elected UK prime minister, David Cameron, launched a programme to implement the Sarkozy commission’s recommendations in the UK. He described this as starting to measure progress as a country “not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving – not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life”.

Again, the emphasis was on measuring (how far are we?). Instead of behaviour change (what should people be doing differently?), the emphasis was on measurement. The implication is that changing what we measure necessarily leads to different behaviours – but the relationship is not that simple. Measurements and measurers exist in the political and social spheres. They are not absolute facts or neutral agents that can be accepted by everyone.

This should not dissuade statisticians from developing new measures, but it should prompt them to engage with all who might be affected – not just those in public policy, commerce or industry. The goal is to change behavior, not just the measures.

Complex systems thinking is becoming more common among economists. This includes both psychological and social understandings of human behavior. For example: Jonathan MichieIt has been argued that cultural and ethical values, as well public policy, are the main influences on behaviour. Katharina Lima di Miranda and Dennis Snower have highlighted social solidarity, individual agency and concern for the environment alongside the ‘traditional’ economic incentives captured by GDP.

Alternatives to GDP in practice

Since Kennedy’s 1968 critique, there have been numerous initiatives to replace, augment or complement GDP over the years. Many indicators have been created and implemented at all levels of the economy, including national and international.

Some aim to account more directly for subjective wellbeing, for example by measuring self-reported life satisfaction or ‘happiness’. Some hope to reflect more accurately the state of our natural or social assets by developing adjusted monetary and non-monetary measures of ‘inclusive wealth’ (including a team at the University of Cambridge led by this article’s co-author Diane Coyle). This approach to measuring has been accepted by the UK government in several policy documents, including its Levelling Up white paper.


Bhutan has introduced a Gross National Happiness Index. Image: Adli Wahid

Other initiatives aim to capture the multi-dimensional nature of social progress by compiling a dashboard of indicators – often measured in non-monetary terms – each of which attempts to track some aspect of what matters to society.

New Zealand’s Living Standards FrameworkThis dashboard approach is perhaps the most well-known. This framework dates back to the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy. It was built over more than a decade by the New Zealand Treasury. The need to fix the discrepancy in what GDP can represent and the ultimate goal for the Treasury, which is to make New Zealanders’ lives easier, prompted the creation of this framework.

The NZ Treasury now uses this information to allocate fiscal funds in a way that is consistent with the country’s needs in relation of social and environmental progress. It is obvious that this has a direct impact on combating climate changes. If government spending or investment are focused only on economic output, there is every chance that a deep decarbonisation necessary to achieve a just transition from a net zero carbon economy is impossible. Equally, by identifying areas of society with declining wellbeing, such as children’s mental health, it becomes possible to allocate Treasury resources directly to alleviate the problem.

The UK’s Measuring National WellbeingPaul Allin, co-author of the article, was responsible for the launch of the (MNW), program in November 2010. This was part of a government drive to increase emphasis on wellbeing in both national life and business. The emphasis was largely on the subjective. personal wellbeing measures that the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) continues to collect and publish, and which appear to be increasingly taken up as policy goals (driven in part by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing).

The UK launched a Measuring National Wellbeing Programme in 2010. Alevision

The MNW team was also charged with addressing the full ‘beyond GDP’ agenda, and undertook a large consultation and engagement exercise to find out what matters to people in the UK. This provided the basis for a set of indicatorsThe ONS updates these indicators from time to time. These indicators can be used to help you identify areas that are changing frequently. continue to be published, there is no evidence that they are being used to supplement GDP as the UK’s measure of progress.

It is not easy to account for inequality within an aggregate index. However, there are several ways to solve this problem. One of them, advocated by the Sen-Stiglitz-Fitoussi commission, is to report median rather than mean (or average) values when calculating GDP per head.

Another interesting possibility is to adjust the aggregate measurement using a welfare-based indicator of inequality such as the one created by Tony Atkinson. An exercise using the Atkinson indexTim Jackson, also co-author of the article, calculated that welfare loss associated with inequality in the UK in 2016 amounted to almost £240bn – around twice the annual budget of the NHS at that time.

One of the most ambitious attempts to create an alternative to GDP is the one that has been called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Proposed initially by economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb, GPI attempts to adjust GDP for a range of factors – environmental, social and financial – which are not sufficiently well reflected in GDP itself.


New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework is already influencing policy. Image: Delphine Ducaruge

Since 2015, GPI in Maryland has been used to indicate progress. In fact, GPI is used as a progress indicator in Maryland since 2015. bill introduced to US Congress in July 2021 would, if enacted, require the Department of Commerce to publish a US GPI, and to “use both the indicator and GDP for budgetary reporting and economic forecasting”.

A potential gamechanger?

In 2021, the UN secretary-general António Guterres concluded his Our Common Agenda reportWith a call for action. “We must urgently find measures of progress that complement GDP, as we were tasked to do by 2030 in target 17.19 of the sustainable development goals.” He repeated this demand in his priorities for 2022Speech to the UN General Assembly

Guterres called for a process “to bring together member states, international financial institutions and statistical, science and policy experts to identify a complement or complements to GDP that will measure inclusive and sustainable growth and prosperity, building on the work of the Statistical Commission”.

The first manual explaining the UN’s system of national accounts was published in 1953. It has been revised five times (the most recent in 2008), to keep pace with changes in the economy and meet the needs of users around the globe for a wider dissemination of information.

We need to find urgent measures of progress to complement GDP

The next SNA revisionThe UN Statistics Division is currently leading the development of this system, which primarily involves national statistical offices. other statistical expertsInstitutional stakeholders such as the IMF and World Bank.

But unlike the UN’s COP processes relating to climate change and, to a lesser extent, biodiversity, there has, to date, been little wider engagement with interested parties – from business leaders and political parties to civil society, non-governmental organisations and the general public.

As the British science writer Ehsan MasoodAs the author has observed, this revision process happens below the radar for most people who don’t use national accounts. This means that many valuable ideas that could be brought in are not being heard by those who will ultimately decide how nations measure their progress in future.

Many mainstream politicians are questioning the viability of GDP in a changing world. Image: Kelly Sikkema

The 1987 report captures the essence of sustainable development. Brundtland Report: “To contribute to the welfare and wellbeing of the current generation, without compromising the potential of future generations for a better quality of life.” Yet it remains unclear how the next SNA revision will provide such an intergenerational lens, despite a new focus on ‘missing’ capitals including natural capital.

Similarly, while the revision programme is addressing globalisation issues, these are only about global production and trade – not, for example, the impacts of national economies on the environment and wellbeing of other countries and populations.

Ambitious deadlines have been set further into the future: achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and reducing global net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero before 2050. The SNA revision process – which will see a new system of national accounts agreed in 2023 and enacted from 2025 – is a key step in achieving these longer-term goals. It is therefore important to open this revision process up for more discussion and scrutiny.

It’s time to abandon this ‘GDP fetish’

One lesson to learn from the history of indicators, such as those about poverty and social exclusion, is that their impact and effectiveness depends not only on their technical robustness and their fitness for purpose, but also on the political and social context – what are the needs of the time, and the prevailing climate of ideas?

The current SNA revision should be as much about the usefulness and use of new measures as it is about their methodological rigour. Indeed, we might go as far as Gus O’Donnell, the former UK cabinet secretary, who said in 2020: “Of course measurement is hard. But roughly measuring the right concepts is a better way to make policy choices than using more precise measures of the wrong concepts.”

In short, there is an inherent tension involved in constructing an alternative to GDP – namely achieving a balance between technical robustness and social resonance. The complexity of a dashboard of indicators such as New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework is both an advantage in terms of meaningfulness, and a disadvantage in terms of communicability. In contrast, the simplicity of a single measure of progress such as the Genuine Progress Indicator – or, indeed, GDP – is both an advantage in terms of communication, and a disadvantage in terms of its inability to provide a more nuanced picture of progress.

A new framework will require the collection of different sources data, including information on wellbeing. Image: Emma Simpson

In the end, a variety of indicators is likely to be essential for navigating a path towards sustainable prosperity which takes full account of individual as well as societal wellbeing. A wider range should allow for different narratives of progress.

Some momentum in the current SNA revisions process and ongoing statistical research is directed toward measurement of inclusive wealth – building on the economics of sustainability brought together in Partha Dasgupta’s recent review of the economics of biodiversity. This framework could gain consensus among statisticians as well as economists. It is currently being implemented by UN, starting with natural and environmental capital.

While including wellbeing measures in the mix would indicate that wellbeing matters, at minimum to some people, it also acknowledges that many things can affect wellbeing. There is no evidence that placing wellbeing measures in different parts of the data ecosystem will result in them being overlooked or ignored. Although wellbeing measures are not the panacea, without them, we will continue to do things to limit rather than to enhance our wellbeing and fail to recognize the potential economic and social benefits that a wellbeing center should bring.

It is not easy to update the statistical framework to better measure economic growth. The SNA was developed over many years and then spread to many other countries. New data collection methodologies should be able to speed things up now – but the first step in getting political buy-in to a better framework for the measurement of progress is an agreement about what to move to.


Whatever replaces GDP must account for inequality. Image: Delaney Turner

National accounting needs what the name suggests: an internally-consistent, exhaustive and mutually exclusive set of definitions and classifications. This new framework will require different sources of data to be collected and, therefore, the process in national statistical offices will need to change. It will need to include recent changes in the economy as a result of digitalisation as well as long-standing problems such as inadequate measurement for environmental change.

Ultimately, this ‘beyond GDP’ process needs to grapple not only with measurement problems but also with the various uses and abuses to which GDP has been put. Kennedy’s neat summary that it measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile” points as much to the misuse of GDP as to its statistical limitations. Its simplicity in being able to simultaneously measure income, spending, and output makes it a valuable tool for macroeconomic analysis. Its use as an unambiguous arbiter for social progress was not appropriate, and probably will never again be.

Clearly, the desire to know if society is moving in the right direction remains a legitimate and important goal – perhaps more so now than ever. But in their search for a reliable guide towards social wellbeing, governments, businesses, statisticians, climate scientists and all other interested parties must abandon once and for all what the Nobel Laureate Stiglitz called a “GDP fetish”, and work with civil society, the media and the public to establish a more effective framework for measuring progress.

Paul Allin is visiting professor in statistics at Imperial College London; Diane Coyle is professor of public policy at the  University of Cambridge, England; and Tim Jackson is professor of sustainable development and director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at the University of Surrey, England. 

This article is republished under Creative Commons license from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Main image: Jack Finnigan

The Conversation

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