You may have noticed a lot of talk about this new paper by Angus Deaton and Anne Case, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century. It seems that middle aged people are living longer, but not white men. (I can’t say about black men, because the study didn’t look at them — but I assume it is the same for them.) A lot of people are speculating why this can be. But it doesn’t seem hard to understand at all. For people in the middle class, life really has become worse.
I know what economists say: people are so much richer today. This certainly is the best of times. But there is something wrong with that thinking straight off the top. Productivity is up. GDP is up. But wages are only barely up. And I doubt that they compensate for all the extra things that people have to buy. It’s not enough now to just buy a television and get a free signal. Now if you want anything at all, you need cable. You have to have a computer and internet now and you didn’t have to have them in the past. Is it good to have them? Sure! But now if you want to find a job, you have to have them. And that isn’t calculated in all these economic discussions of increased standards of living.
But that’s not the main thing from my standpoint. We now live in the Uber economy. People cobble together livings. When they don’t, they live in a world where they work for some company that doesn’t pay them as much as their parents and grandparents made. What’s more, they can depend upon being laid off at the slightest sign of an economic downturn. It’s kind of hard to plan for a life with kids and a house when you don’ know if you are going to have a job next year. Where is the meaning in a life like that?
Obama used to talk about creating a society where if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would thrive. He doesn’t talk much about that anymore. Instead, he talks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and about how that’s going to improve our economy. Of course, we’ve seen our economy improve a lot over the last 40 years. But we haven’t seen the lives of working people improve. So who cares? Obama seems to be telling us something: if you work hard and play by the rules, well, you’re a sucker.
The main thing that I’ve noticed in my life is that this kind of society is one that creates great uncertainty and anxiety in people’s lives. For the first time in my life, I feel fairly secure because I’m working for a number of people. They don’t even pretend to be loyal to me. And that’s great! I’d rather know where I stand. And also, since I’m good at my work, I can be clear with them: if something better comes along, they can enjoy finding something to replace me. But most people aren’t in my position. And they shouldn’t have to be. Mediocre workers ought to be allowed to have decent lives too.
It should come as no shock that middle age workers are dying off due to stress related illnesses and suicide. We’ve created a society that doesn’t value people as people. We don’t provide them ways of finding meaning in life. And without meaning what is the point of life? I know what the conservatives and the economists will tell us: it’s all about making money. But only truly messed up people would think that. Unfortunately, they are the people who control this country.