Should we try to live like the French?

A jogger takes an early morning run on bridge near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Lackluster economic growth is a big concern, and for good reason. GDP per capita is an indicator of material living standards. But it tells little about broader wellbeing. Do we have time to spend with our friends and family? Are we healthy? Rested? Happy?

Charles Jones and Peter Klenow, writing in the American Economic Review, have developed a new metric of living standards that incorporates elements like leisure and inequality that are too often ignored in our traditional economic statistics.

The U.S. is way ahead of countries like France on narrow economic metrics: French GDP per capita is less than two-thirds that of the United States. But when a broader metric is used, the gap is much narrower: Jones and Klenow find that the average person in France was about 92 percent as well-off as the average American.

On at least three fronts, the French can claim to be leading better lives:

1. Americans work an extra hour every day

In 2015, the average employee worked 1,482 hours in France and 1,790 hours in the U.S. Even off the clock, Americans still spend more time working:


2. The gap between rich and poor is much wider in the U.S. than France

Inequality is more severe in America than in France. The share of income taken by the top 1 percent in France increased by 7 percent between 1970 and 2012. In the U.S., richer households saw a dramatic jump in their income share, with the top 1 percent share soaring by 142 percent:


3. The French are much healthier than Americans

And, despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita on health care than almost every other nation in the world, but we lag behind countries like France in health outcomes. The French, who have access to universal health coverage, experience higher life expectancies, lower infant mortality rates, and lower rates of obesity than their American counterparts:


America: Doing well, but room for improvement

It is important not to paint too gloomy a picture. Even taking into account these other variables, the new metric still puts the U.S. ahead of France. Life in America is still good—just not as good as narrow economic measures suggest.

Our colleagues Ben Bernanke and Peter Olson extended the Jones and Klenow model with more recent data and show that slowing improvements in life expectancy and increased inequality are holding overall welfare in the U.S. back. This may help explain why many Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S., despite the recent improvements to household incomes and reductions in poverty.

GDP is a vitally important and necessary measure, not least for helping guide monetary and fiscal policy. But it does not capture all of the things that make life worth living. We should pay more attention to alternative metrics and learn some lessons from the French approach to life. Vive la France!