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Hard Times USA

Is Cutthroat Capitalism Pushing a Growing Number of Baby Boomers to Suicide?

American baby boomers are taking their own lives like never before.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Straight 8 Photography

There's no question about it--American baby boomers are taking their own lives like never before. Suicide rates in the United States jumped dramatically for 35- to 64-year-olds between 1999 and 2010, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These self-inflicted deaths increased from 13.7 per 100,000 to 17.6. As a result, in 2010 more people died from suicide (38,364) than from car accidents (33,687).

The increase in suicide is particularly acute for older folks: Those aged 50-54 years saw their rates increase from 20.6 per 100,000 to 30.7, a jump of 49.4%. For those aged 55-59 years the rates increased by 47.8%.  The rates for women, although much lower than for men, also climbed: "Among women," the report states, "suicide rates increased with age, and the largest percentage increase in suicide rate was observed among women aged 60–64 years (59.7%, from 4.4 to 7.0)."

Is Wall Street's version of capitalism driving up our suicide rates?

We really don't know why humans take their own lives. But we can get a sense of what events correlate with increasing and decreasing suicide rates. Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, provides some suggestions:

“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide. There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference....The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period."

Dr. Arias is referring to research that shows a correlation between the rise of suicide rates and economic hard times. For example a 2001 study by sociologist Augustine J. Kposowa found:

"After three years of followup, unemployed men were a little over twice as likely to commit suicide as their employed counterparts. Among men, the lower the socio-economic status, the higher the suicide risk. Among women, in each year of followup, the unemployed had a much higher suicide risk than the employed. After nine years of followup, unemployed women were over three times more likely to kill themselves than their employed counterparts."

More Older Workers Join the Ranks of the Long-Term Unemployed

In winner-take-all capitalism, if your job disappears during a massive sustained job crunch, you will have a hard time finding another one. In fact, the older you are, the more likely you are to enter the ranks of the long-term unemployed (out of work a year or longer).    

The 2008 Wall Street financial meltdown killed more than 8 million jobs in matter of months. Reckless bankers, not the unemployed workers, caused the destruction of jobs:

  • By the end of 2011 more than 31 percent of the total unemployed had been jobless for a year or longer, according to a Pew Trust study.

  • It also found that "unemployed older workers were the most likely to have been jobless for a year or more."  

  • At that time, "more than 42 percent of unemployed workers older than 55 had been out of work for at least a year, a higher percentage than any other age category."

But wait, doesn't egalitarian Scandinavia have even higher suicide rates?

For decades, Scandinavia was known for its egalitarian economies and its high suicide rates. In fact, for much of the post-WWII era, countries with more egalitarian societies seemed to have suffered higher rates of suicide. This led to a widely accepted narrative that described countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden as having fundamentally flawed socialistic economies that kill the desire to take risks and live fully. Allegedly, their high taxes and cradle-to-grave social benefits harm the most fundamental instincts to compete, to create and to thrive. While some claimed the higher suicide rates came from the lack of sunshine during the long northern winters, the dominant explanation always centered on the evils of Scandinavian egalitarianism.

But blaming egalitarianism no longer works since we now have a new leader in suicides -- ruthless, American-style capitalism. The most recent comparative suicide rate statistics for all age groups and genders show that we have higher suicides rates than Scandinavia: (per 100,000 people) :

  • Denmark 11.3
  • Norway 11.9
  • Sweden 11.9
  • U.S. 12.0

If we singly out the male suicide rates, normally three times higher than the female rates, the U.S. clearly leads the pack:

  • Denmark 15.3
  • Norway 15.7
  • Sweden 16.1
  • U.S. 20.0

Of course, die-hard anti-socialists still could argue that Scandinavia has become more capitalistic and unequal, while the U.S. is growing more socialistic thereby lowering the Scandinavian suicide rates while increasing ours. However, it's painfully obvious that American inequality is growing more extreme by the day. If the anti-egalitarian mythology were true, the U.S. should have the lowest suicide rates in the world. So maybe, it's time to consider alternative explanations.

A counter-narrative to the egalitarian myth of suicide:

Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers gambled the economy into the ground. Through mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buyouts they're still creating and recreating a form of capitalism that throws millions of older workers out on the street. To enrich themselves, financial elites helped to destroy defined pension plans as well as unions, which provide enormous protections for older workers. Wall Street also helps companies load up on debt that can bankrupt the pension funds that still exist. And now our financial barons are leading the charge for cuts in Social Security and Medicare to pay for the damage Wall Street has done to the economy. In short, the Wall Street version of capitalism makes life enormously insecure for the many, while enriching the few.  

If you're a baby boomer who has spent a lifetime working hard, you could be hurting if Wall Street destroys your job and wipes out your savings. Because you are old, you could wind up lost among the long-term unemployed without much of a chance of ever finding a job again. At the very least, you are under a great deal of economic stress, the likes of which very few Scandinavians would ever experience.  

Do suicide rates go down when Americans fight back?

Perhaps some scholars should test the following hypothesis: Do suicide rates in America go down when empowering movements arise? Did the rate of suicide among African Americans decline during the civil rights movement? Did suicide rates among women and the LBGT communities also decline as these movements emerged? Was there even a dip when Occupy Wall Street took center stage?

In short, what would happen to our overall feeling of self-worth if a major movement emerged to take on the Wall Street plutocrats and their Washington enablers? What if unemployed workers were part of a mass movement for jobs and justice as they were in the 1930s? Wouldn't that make us feel more hopeful?  

Well, a national movement to take back our country from Wall Street sure would bring a smile to this boomer.  

 

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with labor unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His book Runaway Inequality: An Activist Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this educational campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

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