Idle, Depressed and Addicted: The Plight of Middle Aged White People

When the research published by Princeton University came out, which says whites between the ages of 45-55, with a high school education or less are dying of drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide probably linked to depression, underemployment (or unemployment) and the general feeling of malaise amongst the American white working class, shockwaves were felt amongst the social scientists. After all, this was a phenomena only in America, other middle aged white people in developed nations are living longer and better. However, upon closer examination of the research data, it’s further revealed that working class women with lower education levels are dying at higher rates than their male counterparts. This is the real shock, because throughout most of human history, with all risk factors considered, women almost always outlive men across every social strata. The reasoning is women by nature are caretakers and so they visit the doctors sooner rather than later when they feel they’ve a health issue and women engage in less dangerous and risky activities than men, which can contribute to premature death. Prior to advancements in modern medicine, the biggest health risk to a woman is childbirth, as it can go spectacularly well or its exact opposite.

The economy has been brutal for those who are not academically inclined or entrepreneurial. Americans who do not wish to or cannot afford to go to college (even that’s no guarantee anymore) and are not entrepreneurial by nature do not have factory jobs to fall back on anymore. Those factories have upped and relocated to Mexico, China, South East Asia where corporations don’t have to deal with unions. In the 2008 recession, whatever was left of the car-making industry died too. So, the old creed of having a ‘strong pair of hands’ and good work ethic won’t help working class folks anymore. This may not mean much for those of us who live in major metropolitan areas on the East and West coasts, but factory work was a lifeline for those who live in the Midwest and the South.

I do not fall into these demographics, I am a late Gen X, we have our own problems but as of right now, premature death from prolonged abuse of drugs and alcohol isn’t one of them (yet). Late Gen X and Millennials still have the benefit of youth and the vigor which comes with youth to push through our obstacles before we grow tired and weary.

I attribute a lot the drinking and drugging the pain away to the changing American economic landscape and in particular our ethos of hard work.

The concept of hard work, industry and strong work ethic is the ethos of Americanism. America was built on these concepts. If one isn’t hardworking they are deemed useless. We don’t have to all become millionaires but we all must work hard in our chosen field to the best of our ability and if we are lucky, we can amass more wealth than our parents or grandparents, or in a word, upward mobility. For any self-respecting American this is a must. And our country for a long time benefited from this ethos, some would argue it’s how our nation was built. We stood out from our European peers in our willingness to work harder and longer without complaint. We expected to earn our living and not have one handed to us. There is no ‘la dolce vita’, stop and smell the roses here in America, that’s for losers. The fact that a whole self-help movement sprung up just to encourage people to stop and smell the roses is evident we are seriously lacking in enjoying the simplicities of life.

This concept is great if work is plenty, such as the post World War II boom years until Reaganomics. But what if there aren’t jobs available for everyone who is able bodied and wishes to work? Temp agencies are now testing people for math and writing skills for a retail job at Macy’s, who knows, Walmart might require a physics degree next in order to be employed with them and earning just above minimum wage. It would be one thing if these low wage, low status jobs led to higher wage, higher prestige jobs, but they don’t, they are dead end jobs to nowhere. Is it dignified to ask someone of a certain age to work these low wage low status jobs, competing with younger high school or college graduates? And to expect them to do these jobs without complaint or resentment, to expect them to answer to a manager who is half their age and is still living in their mother’s basement? Does anyone in their forties or fifties want to work at Walmart or a fast food job if they’ve other choices?

The Republicans are telling Americans it’s the obligation of any out-of -work person to take any job that’s available, regardless if it’s light years away from their skills set or previous experience. For example, out-of-work accountants who refuse to work at McDonalds and would rather continue to collect Unemployment Benefits (which is totally within their rights to do so) in hopes of finding a job that’s in keeping with their skills and experience are now in the Republican’s category of new losers (after the welfare queen and food stamp bum).

For all the jobs that were lost, no effort has been made to replace them (in quantity and wages). No Democrat or Republican administration has put in serious effort into retraining workers who’ve lost their jobs, especially if the job loss was due to factories shutting down, which is no fault of their own. The ‘they can go back to school and get a new degree’ is nonsense. What if they have children to feed and a mortgage to pay right now, do you really expect them to go back to school, rack up student loan debt without any possible guarantee of a more lucrative job only to end up more indebted, especially if they go to these for profit colleges.

Especially for economically deprived areas, in absence of well paying, skilled factory jobs, the only jobs which are available are low paying, customer service, fast food and other light industrial work, which offer no job security nor benefits. Does society expect someone 45-55 years old, who have been gainfully employed until recent years to be satisfied with this type of work and wage until their retiring days? A lot of people in this age group probably have children, besides the inability to adequately provide for their family, there’s also an element of shame. No parent wants to admit to their children they can’t provide the the lifestyle they were accustomed to, or to tell their children all the little extra creature comforts (playing basketball, piano lessons, dance lessons, the accoutrements of middle class life) is no more because mommy and daddy can no longer afford it. In fact, mommy and daddy have trouble affording the basics. This alone is enough to drive people to despair.

The alarming rate of white women, middle aged, high school and below education dying at alarming rates, I’d argue feminism has failed them. The feminist movement was started by middle class women with education and some means who sought to include all women in their struggle for equal rights. However, the modern feminist movement are headed by people like Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ellen Pao, all of whom are well educated, have advanced degrees, high earning, high status women. And the other side of the feminism movement is headed by minority and Black Lives Matter activists, who seek to include all minority and marginalized women (transgender, sex-workers) in their fight for equal rights. The one group, a rather silent group who are left behind are white women who are not high earning, who do not have advanced degrees and are at the bottom of the economic heap. These women are assumed to be coasting by on white privilege alone.

It’s not reasonable to tell a woman working at Taco Bell to ‘lean-in’ at board meetings. First of all, there are no board meetings. Second, if she complains about her wage theft and being made to work many overtime hours unpaid, she’d get fired or hours reduced and now with employers making employees sign employment contracts which contain arbitration agreements, workers have less rights than ever. This is not to dismiss the sexism and discrimination high earning women face, but the feminist movement failed to recognize the needs of the low wage, lower educated women.

The feminist movement with respect to the men, we’ve pushed men who’ve no use to us aside. Some of us have lost compassion, patience and tolerance for men who are down on their luck and are very quick to toss them aside when they are of no more use to us. Meaning, if the men cannot provide (through job loss) but are unwilling to step up and help with childcare to the standard we demand. And because of job loss and are unable to find gainful employment again begins drinking too much or abusing drugs, most women today have no patience for this sort of thing. Many women have multi-tasking down to an art, we’ve learned to adapt to our surroundings quickly, many of us survive on less sleep, less leisure time, less ‘me’ time and though we realizing how taxing it is, we demand the same from our significant other. Also, childcare and parenting is a hot button topic amongst couples now, and many women have no problem moving on from marriages and relationships if they find themselves incompatible in the parenting department with their significant other. The view that we should compromise for the sake of the family is no longer as prevalent as women begin earning more money. 

The reasons why middle aged, low wage, lower educated white people are dying at alarming rates are many and varied and to find one main reason and apply that reason across the board would be absurd. But most of society’s ills can be traced to, according to Sir William Beveridge, the creator of the modern welfare state in Great Britain, the ‘Five Giant Evils’ of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’. And I’d argue the last one, ‘idleness’ is the most evil of them all. When one is idle, all the other ‘evils’ follow it, but when one is occupied, be it with a job, parental duties, hobbies, community service, volunteer work, it takes care of the ‘want’, ‘ignorance’ and ‘squalor’.

Perhaps for America, it’s time to move away from the notion that one must be in the process of being upwardly mobile to deserve respect from society. There’s nothing wrong with having a lack of strong ambition. Not everyone is born ambitious with the need to conquer the world. There is respectability and dignity in earning a decent living, being happy with that and enjoying the time off when one isn’t working. Must we convince everyone, in order to be considered successful by any measure, we must work down to our bones and chase the next promotion? Must our whole identity be tied to what we do for a living? Isn’t being a good friend, loyal companion, animal lover, good parent, good daughter or son and all around good person enough? It ought to be.


8 thoughts on “Idle, Depressed and Addicted: The Plight of Middle Aged White People

  1. The “Fight for 15 Movement” certainly addresses the concerns of working-class women, but it might be focused on a somewhat younger demographic than the 45-54 year old group.

    I wonder if the increased death rate for women over 45 has something to do with how, at that age, your children reach adulthood. If you’ve based your life around bringing up children, those children leave the house, and if your husband’s also in a downward spiral in terms of his employment, it’s probably pretty easy to get addicted to prescription painkillers or alcohol.

    Unmarried women might have their own reasons.

    There’s a woman in my neighborhood, who grew up in one of those ghost houses I photograph. I think she’s older than the demographic but may fit the profile. She never got married or had kids, mostly because she had an abusive father she never managed to break away from.

    (I’m pretty sure he killed out dog when he escaped but we could never prove it.)

    When her father died, she couldn’t afford to keep up the house. They turned off the utilities, including the heat, but she stayed. She eventually got evicted for not paying property taxes. She eventually found a small apartment in a Catholic apartment complex. They found out she had frostbite and had to get several toes amputated. She still lives in that little apartment, alone, in poverty, but she’ll probably survive into old age.

    This was her house. She used to feed two cats, who attached themselves to a neighbor. Occasionally she drop by to visit them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw your post about the ghost-house. It was beautiful. Those are the things I love about the east coast which are absent here in the west coast. I am sorry about the woman in your neighborhood, if someone killed my dog, he’d get it from me, I am glad a Catholic charity found her (or she found them). It’s something. I volunteer with Catholic charities such as these when I have the chance, and this is the side of Catholicism I love.

      The ‘Fight for 15’ is great, however, earning $15/hr without job security (full time position v. temp work), health benefits, sick leave, family paid leave is pointless. The problem here is not just low wages, but job insecurity as well. Most companies large and small are hiring temp workers so that they don’t have to worry about all the legalities of hiring someone full time. They only hire full time employees when they are desperate. I know this because the company I worked for did this (not to me, but to other temps). Companies hate hassle, there’s nothing they loathe more than hiring the wrong person and then being stuck with them until they can legally get rid of them or god willing that person quits on their own. Temp workers solve all these problems.

      About women abusing drugs/alcohol, I’d say women age 45 can theoretically have minor age children, as women are delaying having children across the board. If I am 45 today, my kids would be 13 and 11…and trying to parent in an affluent country where there is so much and you can barely afford the basics is disheartening. It’s not a matter of keeping up with the Jones, it’s the idea that you cannot provide your children with the opportunities a family with more money can. I mean things like SAT prep course, after school activities that cost money and would look good on college applications, living in a better area with better schools. I mention these things because I believe me having access to these things was a big step forward for me.

      As for unmarried women, I hate to say it, it has to depend on the social class they belong to, a lot of my friends were unmarried and childless for a long time, but because they hold bachelor’s and graduate degrees and have good paying jobs, they live very leisurely lives. No alcohol or drug dependency issues there.


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