From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

I came across recent data on the increasing mortality rates for middle-aged Americans (as pointed out in a comment from a post on Social Darwinism). It’s been written about in a number of places: David Cay Johnston at Al Jazeera America, Ian Sample at The Guardian, and elsewhere. The Atlantic article by Olga Khazan included two telling graphs:

The first thing I noted was that this is precisely about my generation, the first wave hitting their 50s these past few years. The infamous Generation X was known for its social problems in youth and now here we are again, carrying our problems into middle age. It is interesting that I have yet to see anyone else observe that this is a generational phenomenon, besides a rare comment.

This trend actually began during the Boomers, as the shift for 45-54 year olds followed 1998, but it has been worsening with Generation X. Before that, there had been a steady decline for the mortality rates of the middle-aged of the GI Generation and Silent Generation, bottoming out with the first wave of the Boomer Generation. As the chart shows, it was only over this past decade, when the GenX vanguard came into this age demographic, that the rates climbed back above where it was in 1990.

With Generation X, following the post-WWII baby boom, there was obviously a decline of the birth rate which also began as a shift with the late 1950s Boomer birth cohort, although the baby bust didn’t hit a low point until the middle of GenX. This nadir was in 1975, the year I was born. My generation was the first highly aborted generation, but its a bit odd that the birth rate began its decline about a decade in advance of abortion rate increase.

This also was a time of increasing childhood poverty, even as elderly poverty was decreasing. Funding and welfare directed toward children went on the decline during this era, although it did shift back up some with the following Millennial Generation, even as childhood poverty rates remained high:

Poverty by age

I see that child poverty hit one peak in 1983, when I turned 8 years old. The last time it had been at that level was decades before. It is strange, however, that the elderly poverty rate kept on its continuing decline. This decline of poverty has been mostly focused on the GI and Silent generations, having dropped from a high level with the Lost Generation. It dropped again in the 1990s, with another low point for the first wave of Millennials, and then rose again with the Recession back to where it was when I was a kid.

At the same time, GenXers had parents with high rates of being divorced or otherwise single. This corresponded with high rates of working mothers and kids being left alone at home after school. Mine was a generation of latchkey kids, not seen since the Lost Generation. Also, the rates for childhood and youth paid labor hadn’t been this high since early 1900s when Lost Generation kids worked as newsboys and in factories and mines.

Writing about Generation X in the early 1990s, Neil Howe and William Strauss put out a book, 13th Gen, that was published in 1993 (they designated this the 13th Generation, since that is what it is in the order of Anglo-American generations). The year 1993 was around the time the last wave of GenXers were either exiting elementary school or entering high school (I graduated in 1994), depending on the endpoint given for this cohort. These authors place the last year of GenX as 1981, although some place it as late as 1984. The first wave was sometime in the early-to-mid 1960s, with an approximate two decades in between.

From that view of the early 1990s, Strauss and Howe wrote that,

“Every day, over 2,5000 American children witness the divorce or separation of their parents. Every day, 90 kids are taken from their parents’ custody and committed to foster homes. Every day, thirteen Americans age 15 to 24 commit suicide, and another sixteen are murdered. Every day, the typical 14-year-old watches 3 hours of TV and does 1 hour of homework. Every day, over 2,200 kids drop out of school. Every day, 3,610 teenagers are assaulted, 630 are robbed, and 80 are raped. Every day, over 100,000 high-school students bring guns to  school. Every day, 500 adolescents begin using illegal drugs and 1,000 begin drinking alcohol. Every day, 1,000 unwed teenage girls become mothers.

“Assessing the harsh living environment of today’s rising generation, once national commission recently concluded: “Never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.” In the 13er cult film Heathers, one teenager put it more bluntly: “You don’t get it, do you? Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can bring upon himself.”

“Thirteeners may or may not be a “bad” generation, but what is not debatable is that their condition is bad. Even their worst critics have to admit that whatever badness they are is a reflection of how they were raised—of what other people did to them, thought of them, and expected from them—and of what happened in the adult world throughout their childhood years.”

Strauss and Howe point out that all of this is worse for minorities (p.120):

“The young male residents of Harlem are less likely to live to age 40 than the young male residents of Bangladesh—and face a higher risk of being killed by age 25 than the risk faced by U.S. troops during a full combat tour in Vietnam.”

At Alternet, Dan Hoyle made a similar observation (The Jail Generation):

“Although juvenile poverty rates have steadily declined, the percentage of children raised in single parent homes has risen from 12% in 1970 to 28% in 1998. Although it is unclear how large a role increased prison populations play in this phenomenon, the increase has been most marked among those populations that have high incarceration rates. In 2000, only 38% of black children were being raised in two-parent homes.”

There are studies that have analyzed this. Mass incarceration has played a major role in the breakdown of families and communities. GenX was the first generation to be targeted by the drug wars and mass incarceration, and this has left some communities with most of the men either in prison or caught up in the legal system. It has been devastating, especially for poor minorities, but it has harmed the entire generation to varying degrees.

Some of the articles about the middle age mortality have blamed it on increasing drug use. There might be some truth to that. If one really wants to understand that problem, the best analysis available is Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (see here). Still, it isn’t clear that drug use has changed all that much, even ignoring abuse of prescription drugs by earlier generations. Though drug addiction rates do vary a bit over time, they remain surprisingly stable this past half century—for anything earlier than that we don’t have accurate data.

Sure, the drug wars make everything about drugs more dangerous. Yet that is no different than how Prohibition made every aspect of alcohol riskier and more harmful. Hari, for example, explains how black markets end up making illegal substances more potent and hence more addictive. So, it is government policies that have this biggest impact on changing public behaviors across generations. Different conditions lead to different results, unsurprisingly.

Some of it is a change in attitudes, which is behind the change in government policies. Strauss and Howe make clear how the earth shifted under the feet of GenXers, just as they were learning to walk (pp. 59-61):

“Circa-1970 polls and social statistics showed a negative shift in public attitudes toward (and treatment of) children. As millions of mothers flocked into the work force, the proportion of preschoolers cared for in their own homes fell by half. For the first time, adults ranked autos ahead of children as necessary for “the good life.” The cost of raising a child, never much of an issue when Boomers were little, suddenly became a hot topic. Adults of fertile age doubled their rate of surgical sterilization. The legal abortion rate grew from next to nothing to the point where one of every three fetuses was terminated. In 1962, half of all adults believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the sake of the children. By 1980, less than one fifth of all adults felt that way. America’s great divorce epidemic was underway.

“Divorce. The fact of it, the calculations influencing it, the openness about it, the child’s anxiety about it, the harms from it, the guilt after it: Here lay the core symptom of Silent nurture of the 13th. America’s divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1975, just as Atari-wave 13ers passed through middle childhood. at every age, a 13er child born in 1968 faced three times the risk of parental break-up faced by a Boomer child born in 1948. Silent parents, authors, and screenwriters addressed divorce as though it were an episodic childhood disease like the chicken pox: something you catch, get sick from, and then get over. […] provoking children of secure families on the fragility of their world. […]

“But if parents liked to stress the “positive” side of divorce, children were left staring at the dark side. according to one major survey of 1970s-era marital disruptions, only one-fifth of the children of divorce professed being happier afterward—versus four-fifths of the divorced parents. […] Of all child generations in U.S. history, 13er kids are the “onliest,” their families the smallest, their houses the emptiest after school, and their parents the most divorced. Three of five 13ers have zero or one sibling, versus less than two in five Boomers at like age. Over the span of this one generation, the proportion of children living with less than two parents increased by half, and the proportion of working mothers of preschool children doubled. fewer than half of all 13ers are now reaching age 16 in households with two once-married biological parents. One 13er in five has half-siblings. If the proliferation of half-thises and step-thats was a challenge for the greeting-card industry, it was devastating to the kids themselves.”

To continue (p. 66):

“Academic journals suddenly abounded with articles about a brand new topic: family violence. Over the 13er child era, the homicide rate for infants and children under four rose by half, the number of reported cases of child abuse jumped fourfold, and the number of vulnerable “latchkey” children fending for themselves after school more than doubled.”

This was a messed up generation, in so many ways. The data makes this clear. I recently showed, for example, how ‘slutty’ was my generation as teens. But the pivotal issue is this was the world into which GenXers were born, and it was all that my peers knew. We were told that we were a bad generation and we came to believe it, a bad generation for a bad era (pp. 87-89):

“When something goes badly wrong, a 13er’s first instinct is to blame himself. That makes some sense, given the world he inhabits. Consider how the public health risks of American teens have changed since the 1950s: Compared to teenagers a third of a century ago, 13ers face a sharply lower risk of dying from accidents or conventional diseases, but this advantage has been almost entirely offset by what elders look upon as “self-inflicted” risks. In the ’50s, the worst threats to youth were random diseases like influenza and polio that attacked good and bad kids with equal cruelty—afflictions that have been mostly conquered. Now, the worst dangers are behavioral. AIDS. Drug and alcohol abuse. Eating disorders. Homicide. And, of course, suicide. Almost by definition, “good” kids are the ones who avoid these dangers, and “bad” kids are the ones who get plastered. […] By almost any measure, the first Atari-wave 13ers, born from 1961 through 1964, mark an extreme for the sociopathology of American youth. They set the all-time U.S. youth records for drunk driving, illicit drug consumption, and suicide. They have been among the most violent, criminal, and heavily-incarcerated youth cohorts in U.S. history. Among later-born 13ers, the picture is brightening some—but not much. Many more kids than a quarter century ago continue to inflict upon themselves (and others) the most violent forms of adolescent trauma.”

Indeed, my generation was violent. After dropping mid-century, violence shot up both toward self and others. Suicides are more common among whites for some reason. But during the spike, blacks almost caught up with the white suicide rate.

Most of that increase was among the younger demographics. Why is that? Many have pointed out the rise and fall of heavy metal toxicity from pollution, especially lead additives in gasoline, although an earlier spike was related to lead in paint and farm chemicals (see here, here, here, and here):

Graph showing correlation between lead exposure and violent crime in USA

09205-scitech1-timelinegraph

I’m always surprised this kind of data isn’t brought up more often. It is clearly related.

One might expect children who had higher rates of pollution exposure and hence toxicity, which is to say poisoning, would as adults show health and behavioral problems and that this would then extend into continuing health and behavioral problems as they aged. That an increase in middle age mortality would be seen among this population is the opposite of shocking. Heavy metal toxicity really messes up the body, not just the brain, and the negative effects are lifelong.

Throw on top of this a generally worsening economy and prospects for this generation. What would one expect? Certainly not improvement in the rates of social and physical health.

I’ll end with one last passage from Strauss and Howe (pp. 98-101):

“It’s a well-known complaint that American living standards, on average, have flattened out ever since American productivity began stagnating in early 1970s. What’s less well known is how this leveling of the national average has concealed vastly unequal changes in living standards by phase-of-life, and how the interests of older Americans have been protected at the expense of young people. Consider the following core indicators of economic well-being: worker pay, total household income, household wealth, home ownership, and the likelihood of poverty. From the late 1930s to the early 1970s, all these indicators improved briskly for every age group. Since then, they have diverged markedly across different age brackets. For households headed by persons over age 65, these indicators have continued to improve as though nothing had gone wrong. For age 35 to 65, most of them have just held steady. But for households headed by persons under age 35—the age bracket 13ers have been entering ever since the 1970s—every one of these indicators has gotten worse. Some have fallen off a cliff. […]

“13ers came to realize that they bore most of the burden for the Reagan-era prosperity that so enriched their elders. They watched the drawbridge slam shut on most of the lucrative professional monopolies dominated by older age groups. They watched U.S. manufacturers respond to efficient global rivals by downsizing through attrition, letting their high-wage older work force age in place. They watched the total number of Fortune 500 jobs (cushy benefits and all) reach its historic peak in 1979—just when they first came to the job market—and then head south ever afterwards Those paths blocked, millions of 13ers wedded their future to the one economic sector in which real pay declined, fringe benefits evaporated, and investment and output per worker showed literally no growth at all: the unskilled service sector. Ronald McDonaldland

“During the Bush years, most of today’s 40 million 13ers living on their own hit their first recession. And behold: This was the only cyclical downturn ever recorded in which all the net job loss landed on the under-30 age bracket. Not on Boomer post-yuppies, not on Silent prime-of-lifers, certainly not on G.I. retirees. Subtract 13ers from the employment tally, and presto: No recession! […]

“[13ers] are beginning to ask harder questions about the policy gridlock over most of the issues vital to their economic future. Like why the college class of ’92 faces the most difficult job search of any class since the Great Depression, with nearly a third of entry-level jobs disappearing and average pay falling for those who remain. Or why the proportion of college grads taking jobs that don’t require college degree has doubled over the last decade. Or why the federal deficit keeps growing on their tab. Or why the income tax rates on billion-dollar investments are held down while FICA tax rates on the first dollar of wage income keep rising. Or why unemployment benefits are extended for households already receiving checks, but nothing is done for the most younger households can’t qualify. or why senior citizens get to clamor for yet a third layer of health insurance when one-fourth of all 13ers have no insurance at all. or why a skimpy urban youth bill, drafted in the wake of the L.A. riots, is allowed to grow into a giant Christmas tree of goodies for affluent older people. […]

“Since the early 1970s, say many economists, America has been undergoing a “quiet depression” in living standards. A bit more pointedly, columnist Robert Kuttner describes 13er as suffering from a remarkable generational disease . . . a depression of the young” which makes them feel “uniquely thirsty in a sea of affluence.” From 1929 to 1933, the bust years we call the “Great Depression,” real household income fell by 25 percent all across America. Now once again: what was the dip in age-bracket income that 13er have suffered since replacing Boomers? Twenty percent for young men? Thirty percent for young parents with children? Thirteeners get the message, even if others don’t, about a “quiet” trauma today’s older people would regard as a history-shattering catastrophe if it fell mostly on their heads.”