Category Archives: Case/Deaton Middle Class Morality Rates Study

Middle-aged White Folks

A study by Angus Deaton and Anne Case is the talk of the town right now and its findings are quite sad. This study says that white middle-aged men, mostly blue collar workers, are dying earlier than their dads, sometimes through poor health, but rates are also climbing for deaths through suicide or the slow self-destruction of addiction to alcohol or drugs (especially opioids), and that this trend has been particularly noticeable since 1999. These findings indicate that American men who were born to fathers who fought in WWII, men who perhaps fought in Vietnam or Desert Storm, are experiencing a kind of collective depression. Actually, I do not think this study separated men and women, but rather looked at all middle-aged white people but when I see this trend in my family and social circle, I see it mostly in the guys.

These men are my brothers and my brothers-in-law and their friends and contemporaries. These men did manual labor for years, or they drove long distances almost daily, one brother-in-law even repaired jet engines. These jobs were easy when they were young but, when done repetitively, year after year, there was a toll on their bodies. Besides lots of lifting, bending and twisting at work these men helped everyone move multiple times, they did their own home repairs because they knew how, because it saved them money, and because it gave them a sense of accomplishment.

These guys believed the American Dream – work hard for an employer that offers health care and a pension, pay into Social Security and Medicare, and you will be taken care of in your age. They thought they would be playing golf, hanging out on their patios hoisting a few drinks, and/or travelling. Yet almost every one of these men found that as they reached retirement age their back gave out, or their ticker. Surgery often made their backs worse. They were not going to play golf or drink, joke, and laugh over the old days. Their health was shot. They were going to learn how to live with pain. Doctors prescribed opioids for pain and some of these guys got addicted and perhaps lost everything. Somehow my own family seems to have by-passed the opioid addiction trap so far.

Several family members did lose their jobs when their factories or the retail stores they managed closed or moved elsewhere. One of my brothers-in-law was not quite situated to retire when the factory where he worked closed so he had to find a new job, which he only found when he moved south. My brother in retail lost jobs over and over as retail moved from full-serve to self-serve or as companies moved to better markets. He was finally set to retire comfortably when the company used an entrapment scheme to fire him on a technicality. He lost his pension and his stock in the company. The blue collar workers in my family were more fortunate than many as their companies did not default on their pensions (yet).

So imagine these guys, dedicated to the companies they worked for, signed on to what they thought was a mutually beneficial bargain and then betrayed by their employer who moved south, who left the country, who found ways to fire older workers with high salaries and replace them with young workers who would work for less. If companies went bankrupt these guys got no pension or they got pennies on the dollar. Then they could not get rehired due to health concerns or age or lack of appropriate skills. Perhaps when they lost a job they also lost a house to foreclosure. Don’t you think this is a pretty grim scenario?

My family members (the men were hit harder than the women, although this is probably not true in all families) did not always love going to work day in and day out, but they did like feeling productive and they did not ever expect to live lives of leisure until they were much older. They followed the rules in middle class America. They did not live through the struggles of the Great Depression as their dads did. They had more money to spend and they smoked too much, ate too much, and drank too much, things our Dad never did. But the things that give them most physical pain in retirement result from abusing their bodies through physical labor, pushing themselves beyond their limits.

If your whole life gets value from your job and from hard work and from recognition for your labor and then your whole raison d’etre is yanked away, depression seems a reasonable, if very undeserved outcome. Probably another prime mover of this malaise is that the world seemed to shift right under their very feet, seemingly bringing their relevance into question. We have all been changed by recent cultural shifts but these men felt they lost ground. In fact they went out in their garages and listened to their radios which told them that they were about to lose their place as the majority group in America, and that women and minorities were moving up. They puttered and listened and smoked their cigarettes or drank their beers and shook their heads “yes” as the radio fed their fears, their anger.

You know the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Well these stages certainly fit the lives of the men in the Deaton/Case study, but perhaps we have almost arrived at the acceptance stage and this trend towards early death will end. There is still plenty to enjoy about living even if you are not the alpha animal, ruler of all creation that you were told you were supposed to be, there is still plenty you can offer to America and to the world. Stop listening to FOX News.

Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton

By Nancy Brisson