Wall Street Journal – Australians Among Happiest, OECD Lifestyle Index Shows

SYDNEY – No worries, mate: Australia may be the world’s happiest industrialized nation by one reckoning, even as it grapples with rising inflation, pricey housing and worries that it is developing a two-track economy.

The resource-rich nation-ranked highly in areas such as overall satisfaction, health, leisure time and community networks, according to a new survey released Wednesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of the 34 nations that make up its membership. The index found that 75% of Australians were satisfied with their lives, above the U.S. average of 70% and well above the OECD’s average of 59%, while 83% expect things to be even better in five years from now.

Australia’s high rank – drawn from data from the United Nations, individual governments and other sources – is due in part to its strong economic performance despite the global economic upheavel of recent years. Growing demand for raw materials from China and other fast-growing Asian economies have kept the nation’s mines, farms and pipelines humming. Unemployment in April was 4.9%, compared with 9% in the U.S.

Unlike the U.S. and Western Europe, Australia is also strong budget-wise and foresees reaching a surplus in the fiscal year beginning July 2012. The Aussie dollar is now worth more than its U.S. counterpart, giving Australians bragging rights as well as more power to buy iPhones and Italian handbags on shopping trips abroad.

But it comes as Australia grapples with some of the consequences of a global resources boom. Annual inflation is currently 3.3%, a level that is beginning to put pressure on household incomes as well as wage demands. House prices have gained 160% since 2000, according to stock brokerage CommSec, generating wealth but making it harder for young Australians to buy property.

“You pay the price in a country where unemployment is so low,” says Alban Spella, a 34-year-old engineer in Sydney. He expects his grocery bill – already 1,000 Australian dollars (about US$ 1,050) per month compared with about A$900 in previous years – to continue to rise, especially for fruits and vegetables.

Mr. Spella also expects his house payments to continue to rise, indersoring one of the political issues that prosperity has brought to the administration of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Australia’s central bank has been raising interest rates to quell inflation, hitting the nation’s homeowners, whose motgage are largely adjustable. Consumer groups have accused the nation’s banks of unfairly invreasing interest rates further – increases that the banks argue they need to offset higher funding costs.

“The cost of living has gone up a lot more in proportion to wages,” says Aycan Aktepe, 45, a business manager who moved to Sydney from Turkey.

The government also faces worries that areas with fewer resources face inflation without benefiting from the commodities boom. In the most recent Newspoll, Ms. Gillard’s Labor party recorded an approval rating of 46% on a two-party-preffered basis – a method that indicates wide public sentiment under Australia’s Byzantine election laws – well behind the Liberal – National coalition on 54%, in part because of economic issues.

The OECD survey, called the Better Life Index, shies away from explicitlty giving any one nation an overall top ranking. Australia doesn’t top any of the individual categories, but if each is given equal weight then Australia’s cumulative rank rises to No. 1, according to the OECD website, following closely by Canada and Sweden. The U.S. ranks No.7.

Of course, many other nations would love to have Australia’s problems.

Australia’s average life expectancy of 81.5 years is more than two years above the OECD average. Average household disposable income is US$27,039, compared with an OECD average of US$22,284, although average wealth is below the mean.

In addition to sandy beaches, Australians also have more time to enjoy them. Australian’s work 1,690 hours a year, compared with the OECD average of 1,739. “Most people leave work at 5 p.m., which is a good thing. Asian hours are crazy.”

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