Why are middle-aged whites dying?

I’m doing fine, but my cousin is dead.


Look at this graph:

In 1990, the death rate for American whites aged 45-54 (USW) was within the normal range of similarly aged people in comparable countries, and similar to the death rate for middle-aged American Hispanics (USH). In all the other countries, death rates continued their centuries-long trend of dropping, with USH tracking the United Kingdom rate almost perfectly. But starting in 1998, USW turns up.

A good summary of this new study is in The Atlantic. The upshot is that about half a million American whites are dead who would be alive if USW death rates had followed the downward track of other first-world countries. The effect seems concentrated in the less-educated classes, and the cause is a sudden jump in the rate of what are called “poisonings” — mainly deaths related to alcohol and drugs — as well as an increase in suicides and other causes related to not taking care of yourself. Atlantic concludes that middle-aged whites “are dying of despair”.

This feels personal to me. My father was a high-school-educated white who was an adolescent during the Depression. For most of my childhood, he had a good-paying factory job that allowed him to buy a small farm that he worked on the side. Needless to say, he was a hard-working guy. But he also saw himself as extremely successful: He owned a house nicer than the one he grew up in, sent his kids to college, and after he retired had a winter home in Florida. He lived to be 90.

I took advantage of the opportunities my parents gave me and got a PhD. I also feel successful, and am in excellent health at 59. But what if, rather than reaching for a better life than my father’s, I had tried to duplicate his success? It wouldn’t have worked. The good-paying no-college-needed jobs went away during my lifetime. I probably would have bounced from one low-status job to another, always wondering why I couldn’t live at the level I had thought was normal for people like me. Compared to my father, I would be a failure.

That pretty well describes one of my cousins, who had alcohol problems for most of his adult life and died a little younger than I am now.

What we’re seeing here, I believe, is the end result of privileged distress. It’s still not objectively harder to be white in American than non-white, but the traditional privileges of whiteness have shrunk, particularly for the working class, while visions of how life is supposed to be (for white people) are pegged to the achievements of our parents. Consequently, it gets harder and harder for working-class whites to live up to the expectations they were raised to have. By middle age many feel like failures, and live with a corresponding lack of self-regard.

Is it any wonder they look for scapegoats, like the Hispanic immigrants, and are attracted to anger-channeling politicians like Donald Trump? They cheer when Trump says America is going to start winning again, and they love to identify with him when he calls his opponents “losers” — because looking down on somebody else is very satisfying when you feel like a loser yourself.

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Comments

  • Ricky Greenwald  On November 9, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I think this is a good and fair analysis, and also incomplete, in that it doesn’t explain why those half-million people died, and not others of the same age range and general life circumstances. Here’s why: Exposure to trauma such as child abuse, witnessing domestic violence, etc. The Adverse Childhood Experiences studies have compellingly documented the negative outcomes especially of chronic trauma exposure as well as exposure to multiple types of traumatic events. These lead to far higher risk not only of poor self-care and risky behaviors, but also (controlling for those) the full spectrum of medical problems such as heart attack, cancer, etc. I propose that it’s a combination of the factors noted in the post, plus trauma exposure, that has led to the increased death rate.

    • jh  On November 10, 2015 at 7:39 pm

      And your explanation for why blacks and hispanics and other disadvantaged demographics are not exhibiting the same downward spiral despite probably harsher conditions?

      Perhaps white culture is having to deal with an extraordinary shift where, with the economy being less than ideal, the whites just aren’t feeling as happy. Perhaps whites are starting to act violently because they have never had the social conditioning that a child of color has had to endure? The shut up and endure lecture. Maybe there is a realization that the white american dream doesn’t exist anymore?

      • Ricky Greenwald  On November 10, 2015 at 8:36 pm

        I don’t have an explanation for why other disadvantaged demographics are not exhibiting the same trend. My point was about why some of the whites within a certain demographic are dying and others are not. Trauma exposure is also known to be a major risk factor for drug/alcohol abuse, as well as suicide, these apparently being the main source of the excess deaths.

  • thebhgg  On November 9, 2015 at 10:18 am

    I love reading you and often agree with your analysis.

    However, I can’t avoid a bit of snark, which I hope you take with good grace as a joke, not a serious refutation of any of your ideas.

    Reading this, I can’t but think of two things: A New Yorker cartoon with the caption “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it?”

    The cartoon suggests itself, as I remember one of the Obama ‘gotcha’ audios, “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

    This loss of privilege idea (while perhaps your phrase) is not new. What, pray tell, can be done to both achieve some progress on social justice, and encouraging those that lost privilege not to do what is displayed in this cartoon:

    http://amptoons.com/blog/2007/06/13/a-concise-history-of-black-white-relations-in-the-usa-2/

  • British Invasion  On November 9, 2015 at 10:20 am

    While I agree with your analysis, I think describing it as “the end of privileged distress” and saying that “by middle age many feel like failures” smacks of a certain self-righteousness. The message between the lines of the final paragraphs is that white people are getting their come-uppance should just suck it up and deal with it.

    I would argue that if the group affected is lower class whites, one can hardly argue that they have super high privilege levels. Some due to skin color, sure, but “trailer trash” is not a subculture that is highly regarded in the USA. And while the situation of a poor ghetto black teenager may be objectively worse that a lower class poor white teenager, the problems that the latter faces certainly feel significant to him/her.

    You claim that “Is it any wonder they look for scapegoats, like the Hispanic immigrants, and are attracted to anger-channeling politicians like Donald Trump?”

    Perhaps we liberals should be asking: Is it any wonder they look for people promising to help them when the liberal establishment seems to be telling them that their problems are insignificant compared to those of non-whites?

    • weeklysift  On November 9, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      If only the promises to help them weren’t so totally empty.

    • weeklysift  On November 10, 2015 at 7:23 am

      A more thoughtful response to your point is that whites who feel themselves slipping into the underclass are often making the classic mistake that slipping people make: They try to hang on to whatever badges of privilege they have, and separate themselves from the “losers” who are already in the underclass.

      A better response is to realize the injustice of the WHOLE system, and to make common cause with ALL the people it oppresses, including the inner-city blacks and the undocumented Hispanics.

      During the Occupy movement, I did a sermon called “Join the Losers”. Its closing paragraph:

      If this movement is to succeed, the hardest thing you will need to do for it is not to vote for certain candidates or give money to certain causes or even to occupy Washington Park. The hardest thing you’ll need to do is face that voice in your own head, the one that says, “You don’t want to be one of these losers.” When you hear that voice, I hope you will claim your people and say: “Yes. Yes I do. I want to join the losers. Together, we are the 99%.”

  • joeirvin  On November 9, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    British Invasion, you make an interesting point. Yes, class does impact racial biases. I am reminded, though, of a comment once by an African American friend, a woman in her 70s, when talking about her working years in my small Midwest city: “When I walk out the door in the morning I gotta be white.” That is not something a white person, regardless of economic status, has to worry about.

  • gstillhungry  On November 9, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I am intrigued by this idea of declining white privilege. Do you know of any data that looks at this? Or any data where one could look at this? I am a PhD student.

    • weeklysift  On November 10, 2015 at 7:05 am

      I don’t. You need to realize that I’m old enough to remember pre-civil-rights America, where white employers could openly say, “I don’t want to hire any niggers.” You didn’t see blacks on TV, and if they were doctors, they probably just treated black patients. For my generation, the change is qualitative and seems huge. Somebody probably has quantified it, but I don’t know who.

  • Dawn  On November 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Reblogged this on Beyond the Crucible and commented:
    Like pretty much everything this guy writes, this is quite thought-provoking. I don’t know about you, but I like having my thoughts provoked.

  • coastcontact  On November 9, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    You are not a psychologist and that makes your analysis a personal opinion. My opinion, and I also am not a psychologist, is that too many Americans have come to view the idea that White Americans are a privileged class regardless of education. The high loss of middle class jobs has driven them to finding an escape. Sure, they blame some minority for their situation but their surrender to alcoholism and drug addiction really can’t be explained.

  • Abby  On November 9, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    I think that this loss of economic opportunity was a part of the background that produced hippies. If you can’t have a life with better opportunities than your parents, then have a life that is good but different from that of your parents. Join a commune! Take up crafts! Grow vegetebles! Brew beer! Play a musicial instrument! The people I knew who decided to be non-college-graduate hippies often had hard lives and even impoverished ones, but not necessarily despairing ones. However, by the 1980s, this vision of a happy (if economically poor) life was ridiculed by the mainstream. Instead, we were offered the vision that somehow everybody was so special that somehow we would ALL have fabulous careers and crack the 1%, even if this is mathematically impossible. Happy hippies were considered losers. Instead of figuring out how to have a happy life on a low income, people were whipped into a frenzy of acquisition that has (maybe) only abated with the millenials. I make this observation about millenials based on my own children, their relatives, and friends.

  • US Dude  On November 10, 2015 at 1:02 am

    There is privileged distress, which is noticeable by the dwindling opportunities for middle-class jobs and entitled/anticipated life-style. However, it coincides with high incarceration rates of the non-privileged non-white population and poor health care access – especially mental health care – for all. Mega-corporations have replaced family owned small businesses on Main Street to High Street and have replaced specialists with cookie-cutter low-wage employees with limited growth opportunity. The time of prosperity in the US which sort of defined the start of this decline came at the end of WWII. Industrial capability around the world had been bombed out of existence leaving US workers unchallenged opportunity. However, segregation in the military also ended, even as Jim Crow persisted. The 1950-1960s again evaluated the WASP privileged paradigm. It is time for another social revolution and correction.

  • Dan Stafforrd  On November 10, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    The entire issue goes right back to income inequality derived from corporatism. It is harder to be successfully middle-class every year.

    In addition, most corporate jobs are requiring longer and longer hours, longer commutes due to inner-city gentrification, and with ever-greater workloads after layer-upon-layer of layoffs in the past three decades, with the worst of it over the past 15 years.

    I can attest to it first-hand, I saw it in my own industry, and nearly everyone I knew in every other industry I could imagine were reporting the same things: wave after wave of mergers/buyouts, each followed within months by layoffs.

    I can’t tell you how many offices I worked in Chicago, each with 15-20 desks, most with only one or

    three still in use.

    The combination of abandoning anti-trust enforcement and adoption of pro-corporate trade agreements has made worker stress on the job and off a Made-In-The-USA product, where few still exist.

    Workers in union shops are barely protected from this. Those of us in non-union shops have been mercilessly abused. The vast majority of the US workforce has the employee equivalent of battered-spouse syndrome.

    They stay, because they see no way out. Once they pass the age of 50, it is triply-so. Age discrimination is never admitted, but constantly practiced.

    I know this because I personally lived it. I know friends and former colleagues who are STILL living it. I know the rampant exhaustion and depression

    The only way many can maintain any sense of pride or status is by pointing to those in even more dire circumstances than they are. It certainly doesn’t come from a sense of having done “a good job” when the corporate rule is multi-tasking at all levels, and at all times.

    Nowhere in the spreadsheet calculations of “efficiency experts” accounting for the time it takes to keep accurate records amidst constant interruptions. They do not take into account travel time between offices. They do not take into account combative competition in the multiple work requests coming in from multiple requestors in many different departments dispersed all over the globe. They do not take into account any variation from the “laboratory” conditions under which they observe tasks being done.

    What we really need in this country is a mass exodus from corporate employment into entrepreneurial employment, which would shut down the corporate illusion factory. Couple that with technology-assisted barter…which I like to call “Techism.”

    What Bernie Sanders proposes will go a long way toward helping youth achieve a better future. It will help the environment. It will drive up economic activity and jobs, and it will solve many infrastructure issues. There are a lot of positives in Bernie’s plan.

    Still, it leaves the issues of corporate personhood and the abandonment of anti-trust investigation and enforcement. It also leaves the existing workforce with a form of PTSD on a national scale.

    We have a long, long way to go in this country before any real respect for human values and needs like rest, exercise, and social bonds are respected in actual fact, and not just given lip service.

    Globally, we also face the looming spectre of automation breathing down Labor’s neck. There is no mechanism built into traditional Capitalism to deal with this. Everyone knows the robots are coming, yet few are talking about it. Capitalism only relates labor to money, and has no means built into it to provide for the needs of those who are displaced from work by automation as it will be in thirty years or so.

    This is why I believe that we will need to have a global paradigm shift in the ways we use to allocate resources based on both human and societal needs.

    The only answer that makes sense is something that I call “Techism,” for lack of a better term. We need to use technology to track resource needs globally, and administer resource distribution. We need to remove money from the equation and base it on a hierarchal series of values:

    Environmental sustainability.
    Human needs and values.
    Obsolescence due to technological improvement.

    Capitalism as it currently stands both drives and hinders improvements in technology:

    Newer, smaller companies attempt to disrupt and displace their way into a competitive capitalist market.
    Older, established companies use every means possible to avoid being displaced and to wring every dime from existing capital infrastructure.

    Clearly the latter players in this game have the money and resources to fight change through every means available. They clearly have financial incentive to do so.

    The only way to speed newer and more sustainable technological adoption is to remove finance from the picture, and simply base re-tooling and technology adoption on testing for more successful resolution of a given engineering problem.

    As for motivation, we need to culturally change what we see as status from the accumulation of wealth and material goods to the accomplishment of innovation.

    We need to change the ground under society’s collective feet, and we need to give the abused everywhere a reason for hope.

    Bernie is the first step down that road, laying the first few paving stones…if he is not blocked by the same forces of capitalism that are abusing and blocking the potential of billions around the globe.

    We have many psychoses in modern culture; Corporate capitalism drives most of them, and uses them to perpetuate itself.

    With hope,

    Dan

  • Philippe Saner  On November 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Russia has had a weirdly high death rate for quite a while, with pervasive despair being one of the best explanations available. I suspect the same thing is happening here: white Americans feel the same hopelessness that many Russians felt when the Soviet Union collapsed.

    Do you think that’s plausible?

    I’m not sure privileged distress is a fair description for this. That makes it sound kinda whiny.

    As you said, changes in the world economy have left a lot of white Americans behind. Even if those changes were good overall, having your world collapse is rough. I don’t regret the fall of the Soviets, but I do sympathize with today’s despairing Russians.

    PS: If you take reading recommendations, I have a couple on this general topic. One is the Men Adrift article in the Economist, the other is this anecdote from Tumblr.

    • Philippe Saner  On November 13, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Does anyone know how to post links that don’t turn into giant images?

      Dr Muder, feel free to edit that giant picture away. I didn’t intend to post it.

    • weeklysift  On November 14, 2015 at 8:30 am

      I’ve also heard the Russia analogy, and it does seem plausible. (The Russian effect was much bigger though, and started from a lower base. I remember seeing somewhere that life expectancy for Russian men had dropped from 66 to 60. I don’t know if it’s still that low.)

      To me the similarity is that you spend the prime of your life playing by one set of rules, and now that you have the bulk of your effort invested already, the rules change. Another similarity is that your distress is independent of the quality or justice of the rules you lived by. Wanting the system to fulfill the implicit promises it made you is different from believing the old rules were fair to everyone.

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