Using PISA 2018 data from nearly half a million 15-year-olds across 72 middle- and high-income countries, this study investigates the relationship between economic development and adolescent subjective well-being. Findings indicate a negative log-linear relationship between per-capita GDP and adolescent life satisfaction. The negative nexus stands in stark contrast to the otherwise positive relationship found between GDP per capita and adult life satisfaction for the same countries. Results are robust to various model specifications and both macro and micro approaches. Moreover, our analysis suggests that this apparent paradox can largely be attributed to higher learning intensity in advanced countries. Effects are found to be more pronounced for girls than for boys.
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We define learning intensity as the product of quantity and complexity of learning tasks completed by a student within a given time period, e.g., a school year. The amount of learning that happens in school is known to be positively correlated with the level of economic development of a country. Due to differing returns to education across nations, Becker et al. (1990) concluded that “societies with limited human capital choose large families and invest little in each member; those with abundant human capital do the opposite”. Hence, parental investment in education of their offspring is highest in high-income countries, and so are the expectations that teachers and parents have in the actual cognitive efforts that children exert (Becker et al., 1990; Mincer, 1984). Given the importance of education and the overall level of development, high-income countries also provide higher school quality (World Bank, 2017; 2021). According to the World Bank (2017), “37 million African children will learn so little in school that they will not be much better off than kids who never attended school”. The secular expansion of schooling and of cognitive effort over the twentieth century economic development processes of OECD nations have further been associated with generational gains in intelligence levels and growth in the human prefrontal cortex (Blair et al., 2005; Flynn 1984, 1987).
A growing body of literature documents declining levels of adolescent SWB between the ages 10 and 15 (Casas and González-Carrasco, 2019). If it is true that schoolwork pressure and test requirements increased during early teen age, it would be advisable to control for education-related factors (Wiklund et al., 2012). Comparing PISA 2015 and 2018 data, Marquez and Long (2021) find declining levels of adolescent life satisfaction in 39 out of 46 countries over time.
Among the 72 countries that measured life satisfaction, the measure was reported by 92.4 percent of students. PISA 2018 data does not contain math, reading, and science scores for Vietnam, and for Spain it does not contain reading scores. When test scores were reported for a country, they were reported for 100 percent of students, without any missing values.
All variables are measured for the year 2018. In case of missing values in 2018, the earliest year available is being used.
Positive and negative emotions were asked in the following manner: “Thinking about yourself and how you normally feel: how often do you feel […]?” (response scale: "1" = 'never', "2" = 'rarely', "3" = 'sometimes', "4" = 'always'). Individual averages across four positive emotions (happy, joyful, cheerful, lively) were used to construct a measure of positive emotions, while averages across four negative emotions (afraid, scared, sad, miserable) were used to construct a measure of negative emotions. Lastly, meaning in life is measured using a 3-item index of perceived meaning in life constructed and provided by the OECD’s PISA team. Students were asked to report the extent to which they agree with the statements: “My life has clear meaning or purpose”; “I have discovered a satisfactory meaning in life”; and “I have a clear sense of what gives meaning to my life.” The index was scaled using a generalized partial credit model and values of the index correspond to Warm likelihood estimates (WLE). The estimates were then standardized so that the mean of the index value for the OECD student population was zero and the standard deviation was one (equal weight given to countries) (OECD, 2019b; 2021).
We average across all three subjects to proxy for the average level of academic performance by country. However, in a separate robustness check we will examine whether our results hold when using separate test scores by subject.
Positive goal interdependence (co-operation) leads to promotive interaction and exists when individuals perceive that they can reach their goals if and only if the people with whom they are co-operatively linked also reach their goals. Negative goal interdependence (competition) exists when individuals perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the people with whom they are competitively linked fail to obtain their goals, and results in oppositional interaction. No goal interdependence leads to no interaction.
Individual-level variables were selected from a larger pool of individual controls. The ones remaining proved to be particularly significant for adolescent well-being.
We distinguish Confucian and Non-Confucian countries in East Asia, given the much stronger educational competition in the former. Confucian societies include Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Macao.
Data on adult life satisfaction was only available for 70 out of the 72 countries. When restricting the sample in column (1) to these 70 countries, the coefficient estimate for ln GDP per capita is similar (coeff. -0.360; s.e. 0.086).
We checked for the presence of multicollinearity among regressors of model (6) in Table 3. VIFs were all below 4. Interestingly, competition and co-operation showed a positive bivariate correlation, indicating that these can be complementing each other (ρ = 0.39).
Imputed values are predicted based on a multivariate regression of lower secondary net enrollment on ln GDP per capita, average and expected years of schooling for 2018 from the Human Development Index, as well as 10 world region dummies.
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Rudolf, R., Bethmann, D. The Paradox of Wealthy Nations’ Low Adolescent Life Satisfaction. J Happiness Stud 24, 79–105 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-022-00595-2
- Economic development
- Adolescent life satisfaction
- Learning intensity
- Education competition
- Mental cost