Scott Alexander links to this brilliant essay from the blogger More Crows than Eagles called “Unnecessariat,” discussing rising death rates due to suicide, overdose, and alcoholism among the white working class through a metaphor with the AIDS epidemic. It’s enormously insightful, despite being about a topic that I feel like I’ve read more articles about this year than any other. The author places the despair of Americans left behind by an increasingly globalized and automated world in contrast with the indifference of ruling elites, from tech tycoons to liberal bureaucrats.
There’s just one problem that is endemic to these kinds of articles. Here are age-adjusted death rates for middle-aged white men and women, via Andrew Gelman:
Death rates for men went up and then down. It’s women’s death rates that are going up, up, up.
Like other articles about increasing white death rates (or death rates by suicide or overdose or alcoholism) “The Unnecessariat” waves at more generalized social dissolution, but it’s still a fundamentally Marxian vision of dispossessed and obsolete workers giving into despair.
Here are women’s earnings over the last 40 years.
Here are white women’s earnings over the recent period that their suicide, overdose, and alcoholism rates have skyrocketed up:
I don’t doubt that the women killing themselves with drink or pills in great numbers are experiencing economic stress along with all the other kinds, and that, like the Russian guys methodically drinking themselves to death that I saw in Russia in the 90s, a sense of purposelessness (along with cheap liquor) is partly at fault.
But that story has to be about women’s lives in families, not merely or mainly as workers, the isolation of changing communities, changing technology, changing homes.