Looking at the links between the job market and life spans
A strong job market might help prolong life spans—just look at Japan
You may have seen an Associated Press story last week about longevity in Japan. The lead of the story was that Japanese women are expected to live 86½ years, topping the world’s longevity ratings for the 25th consecutive year. The figures come courtesy of the nation’s health ministry and show that both Japanese women and men extended their average life expectancy in 2009 to new records—86.44 years for women and 79.59 years for men.
Japan has long been known for the extended life expectancy of its people. A ministry official attributed the improvement to reduced mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disorders, stroke and pneumonia. Health officials also cite the country’s healthy diet (think fish, rice and vegetables) and high living standards as contributing factors.
The really interesting finding is reported lower in the story. Japanese men saw their average life expectancy slip to fifth from fourth in the global rankings. The ministry official noted an increasing number of suicides among older men. Suicide, crime and alcoholism have become growing problems because of low incomes and unstable employment.
These findings do not bode well for the U.S. Japan plunged into a severe economic downturn in the 1990s from which it has never fully recovered. The worst economic downturn in U.S. history since the Great Depression began in December 2007. While most economists say the Great Recession has technically ended, unemployment remains high.
For all the good done by the federal stimulus package, millions remain out of work. The official unemployment rate, not counting those who have given up looking for work, is about 9.5%. Worse yet, 46% of the unemployed have been without work for six months or more—the highest percentage since the government started compiling such statistics in the late 1940s.
Meanwhile, a Rockefeller Foundation report has found that 1 in 5 Americans has seen a decline of 25% or more in household income and the downturns are hurting people more than they used to. The report said that in 1985, 12.2% of Americans suffered a financial loss bad enough to make them economically insecure. During this recession, the figure stands at 25%. The pain shows no sign of abating soon. Like Japan, the U.S. binged on economic speculation and now is paying the price. Experts say this national version of a corporate workout could last years longer. The politically roiled public sector is feckless, and the private sector prefers to sit on cash and boost profitability by not hiring workers.
This is a recipe for social instability and diminished public health. We told you earlier this year (Feb. 22, p. 22) about an Atlantic Monthly article predicting dystopian consequences from the Great Recession. That story noted that each recession since 1980 has retreated more slowly than its predecessor. These downturns take a particular toll on males, who stake much of their self-worth on their jobs. They suffer crippling disorientation, aggression and often turn to domestic violence and substance abuse. And we know from other studies that when people feel they have lost control over their lives, they suffer from physical as well as psychological stress.
Hospital executives can expect continued operational and financial pressures from the uninsured and underinsured seeking treatment. State Medicaid budgets will be strained for the foreseeable future. Hospital billing departments and emergency rooms will be similarly taxed. The health reform law will help, but its main impact won’t be felt until 2014. High-risk insurance pools and other interim provisions can offer only limited help.
The underlying employment problems at the root of this crisis may take years to fix. Just look at Japan.