In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy lamented that using income to measure progress “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education,[…] the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. […It] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Had Kennedy lived to see the 21st century he may have been heartened by the great strides social scientists have made towards measuring that elusive quality.

In addition to quarterly GDP statistics, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) now releases quarterly wellbeing bulletins that detail the population’s feelings of life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety and worthwhileness. Personal wellbeing measures are intended to “look beyond what we produce, to areas such as health, relationships, education and skills”. They are being considered for official Treasury impact analyses and their release puts the UK at the forefront of a growing trend to look beyond income to determine the progress of a nation.

Of course, income and employment remain important to a person’s wellbeing but these latest measures recognise that other variables matter too.

The absence of data until recently means that graduates’ wellbeing is little studied in the UK. Graduate employment and income is reasonably well understood and new datasets are now providing even greater insight through the use of tax records.

There is some data on the wellbeing of students in higher education: the 2017 HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey “confirms student wellbeing is lower than for the rest of the population. Only one in five students (19 per cent) reports low anxiety, compared with twice as many people (41 per cent) in the population as a whole”. This is concerning but does not shed light on the wellbeing of graduates who have left higher education and are in a position to take advantage of the skills they have gained.

Our new report uses ONS data to examine the wellbeing of graduates and finds that higher education tends to lead to greater levels of life satisfaction, happiness and a sense that life is worthwhile.

Wellbeing across qualifications

However, consonant with the data on students, it also finds that higher qualifications may lead to a greater sense of anxiety. More work is needed to determine which aspects of a graduate’s life give rise to that anxiety but it is striking that the effect is particularly prominent among graduates living in London. In contrast, graduates who live in Northern Ireland or Yorkshire, for example, experience far lower anxiety than non-graduates in those regions.

It is important to remember that this result may not mean that living in London causes graduates to be more anxious. It may be that graduates in London are disproportionately employed in stressful occupations with long hours. Or it may be that higher attaining graduates, who tend to be more anxious, are more likely to move to London. There are many possible explanations and more research is required to understand this result.

Anxiety across regions

Age may also be an important mediating factor. Employed graduates experience greater anxiety than non-graduates early in their careers but that gap seems to disappear as both near retirement age. It may be that a life spent working in a graduate profession provides financial security in retirement that is not enjoyed by non-graduates.

Unfortunately, the limitations of our cross-sectional data prevent us from differentiating between effects that are related to age and effects that are related to the milieu of the time. For example, we don’t know to what extent graduates now approaching retirement were more anxious than non-graduates during the early stages of their careers. Interpreting the difference in anxiety is further complicated by the fact that employed graduates of all ages have greater life satisfaction than employed non-graduates of a similar age.

The differences in wellbeing across professions can also be seen within the graduate population. The chart below splits wellbeing by the subject the graduate studied in higher education. It shows that the greatest average wellbeing is found among graduates with a qualification in education or healthcare.

Wellbeing by undergraduate subject

As Ebenezer Scrooge found 174 years ago, the greatest satisfaction can be found in using one’s skills to help others.

Read the full report on graduate wellbeing