New research finds that Americans without college degrees live roughly eight and a half years less than their college-educated counterparts. Being working-class in America means being ground down and left behind, explaining the rise of “deaths of despair.”
For Americans without college degrees, life expectancy starting at age twenty-five was 49.8 years (almost seventy-five years old) on the eve of the pandemic, down from 51.6 years in 1992 (or seventy-seven). (Gary John Norman / Getty Images)
My brother is only forty-four years old, but most of his best friends are dead.
Three of them made a suicide pact, and all ended their lives over the course of a sorrowful summer in the aughts. Another succumbed to a drug-fueled swimming pool accident. Most recently, his old pal Zach passed away from liver failure at thirty-nine — the result of drinking roughly a bottle of booze a day for years.
I worried that my brother would join the deceased during the COVID lockdown after he shot himself in a moment of rage and hopelessness. But he’s relatively back to normal since then.
The same can’t be said for a vast swath of struggling working-class Americans without college degrees. According to new research from Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the authors of the 2020 book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, life expectancy for those without college degrees peaked around 2010 and has been sinking ever since.
For Americans without college degrees, life expectancy starting at age twenty-five — what’s termed “adult life expectancy” — was 49.8 years (almost seventy-five years old) on the eve of the pandemic, down from 51.6 years in 1992 (or seventy-seven). That’s a stark contrast with their college-educated counterparts, whose adult lifespan rose a half decade from fifty-four to fifty-nine years. Add it up: those who didn’t attend college live roughly eight and a half years less than those with at least bachelor’s degrees.
Case and Deaton pin some of this disparity on the rise of so-called deaths of despair — adults dying of suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease. They compare America’s decline in life expectancy to that among Soviet bloc countries after the collapse of the USSR in the ’90s. “Like those countries, the United States is failing its less-educated people, an awful condemnation of where the country is today,” they wrote in a New York Times editorial this week.
This data is sad but not surprising. The story should be familiar by now. College education here is a proxy for class, and class matters.
American wealth was equally split between the college-educated and non-college-educated in 1990, but today, three-quarters of wealth is owned by college graduates. For most of the last three decades, Americans cast ballots for two sides of the same neoliberal coin, endorsing a system in which resources are distributed according to ability rather than need. The neoliberal system handsomely rewarded the new meritocratic elite — the top 20 to 30 percent of the population that adapted and shined under our transformed information economy.
The outlook hasn’t been so rosy for America’s ever-expanding underclass. If you’ve never attended college, live in a poverty-stricken neighborhood or community, are stuck in the service industries, and don’t have many “marketable skills” — well, sorry, you’ve been screwed by both major parties in terms of wages and benefits. Certainly, there have been some hopeful signs recently from the advent of “Bidenomics,” wage increases for some lower-wage workers, and an emerging labor movement pushing for more.
But it hasn’t trickled down to people like my brother, who is one of the forty million or so Americans who lack a high-school diploma, much less a college degree. His prospects for a decent-paying job have been greatly limited. In middle age, he’s making $11 per hour as a full-time maintenance man at a high school.
No matter who has sat in the Oval Office since my brother entered the workforce — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Joe Biden — his life has remained remarkably similar: living paycheck to paycheck on a paltry salary that’s hovered slightly above the poverty line.
I fear for my brother and my four nephews, all young men without high school diplomas who face an uncertain future. Only a major paradigm shift away from neoliberalism can transform their prospects.Original post