An article that caught my attention this past week, amidst all of the focus on healthcare in D.C., was about the “Deaths of Despair” among middle-aged white Americans. I highly recommend checking it out and posting your thoughts in the comments. I have some questions and thoughts about how this phenomenon relates to early retirement and the frugal-stoic lifestyle many of us bloggers preach in order to obtain the early retirement goal.
Our National Despair
The startling finding from the study reveals that life expectancy has unexpectedly decreased for white middle-aged Americans, while European whites have experienced increased life expectancy during the same 15 year period studied. What’s striking is that for the decades since World War II ended, life expectancy increased year after year, and now, we’re seeing a relatively sudden reversal.
The cause? The study’s authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, are honing in on the lack of steady, well-paying jobs. Many of these jobs, when they existed, were skilled factory or coal-mining jobs supported by unions. Benefits including healthcare and pensions were typical. The hourly pay rates were relatively high. These working class families could afford decent homes, cars, and all the trappings of what we might consider “middle class.” This was actually the environment I grew up in, in rust-belt Michigan.
Nowadays, good-paying union work is far less prevalent. Since the early 80s, manufacturers have continued to move production outside of the United States, in order to lower costs and increase profits. It could be that the strategy to win the Cold War was to outspend our Soviet adversaries on high tech armaments, while maintaining a robust domestic economy.
Whatever the strategy or intent, we find ourselves in a situation where the jobs of the past just aren’t there anymore. It’s been almost 75 years since the end of World War II. Do we still feel owed the spoils of winning that war, or, do we continue to challenge ourselves to compete in new and more complex arenas of the global economy, while not allowing extreme disparities to persist between haves and haves-not?
A Solution from Overseas?
An opposite study of sorts reveals some tantalizing answers. The 2017 study of the “World’s Happiest Countries” puts Norway and Denmark in first and second place, respectively. The U.S., perhaps feeling the impact of the very real “Despair” phenomenon, comes in at 14. What is so unique about the Scandinavian nations, as compared to the U.S.?
Having visited Norway, I can report that it is a very beautiful country, filled with active and fit people. I suppose if you had pristine mountains and fjords with waterfalls and pine forests in your backyard, you’d be fit too with all that hiking at your door step. Interestingly, Norway is a very wealthy nation (thanks mainly to its offshore oil production), but you wouldn’t conclude that on the surface, if your yardstick were the presence of gaudy homes and shopping malls.
Norwegians, like the Danes, have established highly egalitarian societies that shun overt displays of wealth. Some go to “university” to learn a high-skilled professional trade, while others go to “college” to learn a highly useful (and equally well-paid) trade. It may not be too far of a reach to think that the American white working-class of the 60s and 70s compare closely to modern well-off (and happy) working-class Scandinavians.
The Simple Path to Happiness
The answer might be obvious, even if the solution is far from obvious. Meaningful work that is stable, pays middle-class wages and provides necessary benefits is perhaps the biggest piece of the happiness puzzle. Without meaningful and well-paying work, social fabrics and supports can start to come undone. In the U.S., we’re prone to ever increasing disparities in wealth. Social constructs are under assault with drugs, alcoholism, and yes, I’ll say it, an overdose of screen-time on devices taking us further away from developing real, community-level support.
Building on this, once you’ve figured out how to provide meaningful work, benefits, and social supports (e.g., health care, education, police, fire, etc.), what can the individual do to find his or her path towards contentment? Stick with the Danes, and their concept of Hygge…
The early retirement crowd must have a Danish component to its DNA. Hygge (pronounced, “hoo-guh”) is how the Danish describe their contentment in the simple pleasures of life. An argument is that the Danes have so few worries, with stable jobs, over a month of paid vacation, a year of paid maternity leave, universal healthcare, etc., that it’s easy to live the “simple life” without so many “clouds of worry” hanging over your head.
There’s an affinity there, I think, with the early retirement crowd. We tend to find our contentment in meeting basic needs and nurturing relationships, rather than fulfilling some quixotic quest to amass a large fortune in McMansions, jet skis, private school degrees, and BMWs. Us early retirement types put a full court press into building safety margins with our investments, so we can focus our “worries” on helping our kids with their homework and keeping rabbits out of our victory gardens.
Can Big Government and Personal Accountability Coexist?
That all sounds good, right? If only we could copy what the Danes do, we’d be just fine. The problem is, we’re not Denmark. We’re our own amazing, albeit far from perfect nation. The early retirement crowd might appear to have their shit figured out, but they’re (with certainly some exceptions) a very small subset of predominantly college-educated whites. There is real and awful pain going on in too many American communities, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.
Is the solution to the problem of our despair to institute some new policies? Perhaps, but only if, as a nation, we can agree that policy, good policy, is an essential component to solving problems. There’s a strong bias by some, including those who stand to benefit from programs, against anything considered “Big Government.” And still, we expect our leaders to provide for us and solve many of our problems for us. Is the right combination a blend of smart policy that doesn’t coddle us, but gets us off our feet and then empowers us to improve? I’d love to get your thoughts on that question. It’s probably a question worth its own blog post, but for someone else to tackle!