A new study showing a stunning rise in middle-aged white mortality is a terrible indictment of national economic policies that have ignored long-term unemployment of older workers, the loss of traditional pensions, and rampant age discrimination in employment.
Two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who recently won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics,and Anne Case, have published a study in which they document a “remarkable” increase in mortality for whites aged 45 to 54 after a long period of decline. By contrast, the authors write, the mortality rate has continued to decline for middle-aged whites in other rich countries and also for blacks and Hispanics in the United States.*
The authors estimate that a half a million deaths of middle-aged whites would have been avoided from 1999‒2013 if the mortality rate had continued to decline at its previous (1979‒1998) rate of about two percent per year. They compare this loss to the number of lives lost in the U.S. AIDS epidemic.
Middle-aged whites are dying in a misery-fueled “epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse, alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
The authors say the reasons for the epidemic are only “partly understood” but they point to several possible factors, including “economic insecurity” and “widening wealth inequality.” They specifically note the U.S. has moved primarily to defined-contribution pensions, which are subject to stock market risk, while, traditional defined benefit pensions are still the norm in Europe. A traditional pension, along with lifetime savings and Social Security, once were the cornerstone of retirement in the United States.
In my book, Betrayed: The legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace,” I discuss the devastating impact of the Great Recession and chronic unemployment due to age discrimination on the health and welfare of older workers. While ignoring these problems, I note, Congress enacted policies that encouraged the adoptionof risky defined contribution pensions – also known as 401K plans – and did nothing to stop the decline of the traditional defined benefit pensions. Studies show that half of older Americas today are economically vulnerable due to a loss of savings in the recession, their inability to find work as a result of age discrimination, and the lack of an employer-sponsored pension.
The authors predict more problems ahead if U.S. workers “perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.”
Deaton and Case report that all education groups among middle class whites saw increases in mortality but those with less education saw the most marked increased. The mortality rate for whites aged 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. That’s a 22 percent increase!
The study states the epidemic may account for large increase in Social Security disability claims as well as the “recent otherwise puzzling decrease in labor force participation in the United States, particularly among women.”
The authors indicate the epidemic can be brought under control and “its survivors may have a healthy old age. However, addictions are hard to treat and pain is hard to control, so those currently in midlife may be a ‘lost generation’ whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.”
There is overwhelming research that links workplace stress and joblessness to mental and physical health problems. The American Psychological Association reported in 2011 that the U.S. may be “on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis.” The APA found that Americans rely on unhealthy behaviors to manage the stress, noting that 33.8 percent of Americans adults are obese and one in ten suffers from depression.
Deaton and Case based their study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, primarily upon an analysis of public health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Somewhat incredibly,the CDC didn’t notice the trend.
* Note: Middle-aged blacks still have a higher mortality rate than whites — 581 per 100,000, compared with 415 for whites. The rate for middle-aged Hispanics is lower than for middle-aged whites at 262 per 100,000.