Why Are Death Rates Rising?

Researchers Ann Case and Angus Deaton have discovered that death rates have been rising dramatically since 1999 among middle-aged white Americans, and the economists believe that they have a better understanding of what’s causing these “deaths of despair” by suicide, drugs and alcohol.

They attribute the premature demise of 45-55-year-old, non-college educated white people to shrinking opportunities in the U.S. labor force, which leads to despair, broken marriages, and ultimately, substance abuse.  With the rapid advancements in technology likely replacing many more jobs, this tragic situation will likely become worse.

Couple this development with the loss of traditional DB plans that provided financial security, and you can imagine the profoundly negative social and economic ramifications that will follow. For those of us, and today it is most of us, in a defined contribution plan, the build up of assets in our accounts tends to occur later in life when many of those expenses related to having children or paying for our educations are no longer impacting our incomes.

Job losses for those in their late 40s and 50s can be devastating, as individuals often have to tap into their “retirement” account to help bridge the employment gap. If you are fortunate to find employment, this strategy may be temporary and not devastating, but for a significant percentage of those that find themselves out of work, this can be a financial death knell.

As a nation, we must once again find a way to offer pensions that provide a monthly annuity and survivor benefits, while taking out of the equation the investment management responsibility by those least capable of performing this task. In addition, we need to provide job retraining for those workers who have been displaced.

My son, Ryan, has suggested that there should be a late-in-life Americorps-type program where displaced workers take classes for a year.  He suggested that these workers should be retrained in those sectors likely to benefit from technology’s advances. Importantly, if you have the good fortune to spend two years working for a public entity, your program costs are forgiven.  I like the idea.

We cannot afford to write these people off.  As a country generating weak growth already (GDP at 1.6% for 2016), forcing millions of potential workers to the sidelines won’t do anything to jumpstart demand for goods and services. Getting people re-trained, working, producing goods and services, and earning wages for their effort is far more ideal than having our social safety net stretched beyond our wildest imaginations.


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