We are in an era of progress paradoxes. Unprecedented gains in technological innovation, poverty reduction, and life expectancy around the world coexist with persistent poverty traps in the poorest countries and increasing inequality and anomie in some of the wealthiest ones. In the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries, we see booming stock markets and record low levels of unemployment alongside stories of profoundly unequal hopes, lives, and lifespans.
An important driver of these inequalities is the decline in the status and wages of low-skilled labor at the same time that high-skilled workers have experienced increases. Relatedly, we have seen an increase in prime-age males (ages 25-54)—and, to a lesser extent, women—simply dropping out of the labor force: Fifteen percent have already dropped out and this number will likely increase to over 20 percent in the next few years. Yet despite their increasing numbers, these individuals fall out of the calculation of unemployment rate when they stop looking for work.
Meanwhile, U.S. life expectancy is falling due to suicides and drug and alcohol overdose (“deaths of despair”), primarily among less-than-college-educated whites in their middle-aged years. Out of the labor force (OLF) males are more likely than the average to be opioid users and on the disability rolls, as well as victim to deaths of despair. Our markers of well-being—and in particular the absence of hope—match the patterns in these deaths. Poor and working-class whites report much less hope for the future and more stress than do poor African Americans and Hispanics, even though the latter face higher objective disadvantages. And the same places that have higher levels of these kinds of deaths have lower average levels of well-being along the same dimensions.
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