I'm no social scientist. Seeing as how I'm sitting here alone on a Saturday night, drinking by myself, you could argue that I'm barely social. But I do fancy myself a connoisseur of common sense, a student of simplicity, an observer of the obvious. (An asshole for alliteration, even.)
We've offered explanations in these pages for the frothing absurdity of the American presidential election, trying to find meaning in the alternately absurd and depressing spectacle of the GOP primaries. Far more august publications have done the same, as everyone with a byline has taken a run at understanding the inchoate rage of the largely white, largely middle class base of the modern conservative movement.
More ominously, and perhaps more telling in terms of the broader societal implication, is the authors' hypothesis for the cause of increased mortality rates for a group that makes up nearly 40% of the U.S. population. Noting that the rise in mortality for the demographic cohort in question is driven by drug and alcohol-related illness and increased suicide rates, Deaton and Case surmise that financial strain is the culprit. As Olga Khazan explains in The Atlantic, "Jobs in fields like manufacturing and construction, which were historically filled by people without college degrees, have been evaporating quickly over the past 15 years. [L]ess-educated people are more likely to be unemployed and to make less, so they struggle to afford things like therapy, gym memberships, and recreation that isn’t drugs. Without jobs, they may lack the social networks and sense of purpose that have shown to reduce mortality.
Nearly half of Americans in their 40s and 50s don’t have enough money saved for retirement to live as they’re accustomed to, even if they work until they’re 65. All of this is crashing down on Boomers, who were raised on the promise of the American Dream."
Deaton sums up his findings simply and starkly, saying that "half a million people are dead who should not be dead."
A generation of Americans may not be aware as a group of these statistics, but they're certainly individually cognizant of the fact that their friends are dying, and of a sense of demographic despair. At the same time, they lack a voice, something that's the province of the elites, the degreed, the financially secure. They're scared, and they're pissed, and they're lashing out at a world that's operating under new rules.
And it's hard to blame them for what's a genuinely human response to a brutally real, personally frightening, and seemingly intractable problem.
There are no easy answers here. The perfect storm of generational anxiety and political opportunism predicts a bleak 2016 presidential campaign.
Where we go from there is anyone's guess.