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The Deadly Toll of Boredom and Vice

December 07, 2015

How bad is a life without work? I’ve been asked this question a lot lately. It’s becoming pretty clear that the two forces of globalization and technological progress are reshaping economies and societies, especially in advanced economies, and that these effects are being felt most strongly right in the center of the workforce — across the individuals and families that make up what Americans call the middle class. Lots of the traditional jobs for these people are going away in the rich world, and wages for remaining workers are pretty stagnant.

The fact that the middle class is getting hollowed out in country after country is rightly of concern to a lot of people. A large, stable, prosperous middle class is important for civil society; most informed observers agree that it supports inclusiveness, tolerance, democracy and many other good things. It’s also a great engine of overall demand for an economy — lots of moderately affluent households buy lots of things.

So what happens when the industrial-era jobs that underpinned the middle class start to go away? Voltaire offered a prescient caution when he observed that: “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”

Of the three of these, I’m the least worried about need. Trade and technological progress, after all, make a society wealthier in aggregate. The problem that they bring is not one of scarcity — of not enough to go around. Instead, they bring up thorny questions of allocation.

But rather than spending time on that issue here (if you’re interested, Erik Brynjolfsson and I dedicate a lot of our book The Second Machine Age to it), I want to focus on Voltaire’s other two evils, boredom and vice. How bad are they? How worried should we be about them?

I sometimes hear the argument that we shouldn’t be that worried at all. If we don’t need people’s labor, this logic goes, why should we care what they do with their time? Why should traditional notions of boredom and vice matter? If people want to drink, take drugs, engage in casual sex or play video games all day, where’s the harm? These are not the most conventionally respectable or productive activities, but why should we let convention continue to hold sway?

In my 2013 TED talk, I brought up one set of reasons why we should still be concerned. I cited Charles Murray’s research documenting how much social conditions have changed over the past 50 years for lower middle-class Americans (while remaining essentially unchanged for upper middle-class ones). Divorce rates have skyrocketed, as have crime rates, the number of children being raised outside two-parent homes and the number of men who have essentially dropped out of family and community life.

These social ills have come alongside the disappearance of industrial era jobs. There’s active debate about whether the disappearance of steady work causes them, or whether they’re all due to other factors. I’m in the camp that believes that the disappearance of work is a cause, not just a correlation.

Mortality Links?

A recently published paper by 2015 Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and Susan Case reveals a much more alarming trend than social decay: while death rates for almost all American adults have dropped sharply in recent decades, those of the least educated middle-aged whites have actually increased. As The New York Times summarizes: “The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” How big a jump is this? It’s huge. As Mr. Deaton puts it, “Only HIV/AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.”

What’s causing this tragic spike? Mr. Deaton and Ms. Case found that just about the entire rise in mortality could be attributed to three factors: suicide, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and alcohol and drug poisoning. The people in this socioeconomic group, in other words, are killing themselves deliberately and inadvertently, quickly and slowly.

Of course, we don’t know with any certainty why this is. The findings are new, and much more research is required to understand the causes of this alarming development. But here’s my hypothesis: I don’t think the employment woes of this group are incidental to the story. Instead, I think they’re central to it, and that

it’s far from a coincidence that the employment-population ratio for U.S. adults with no more than a high school degree was less than 52 percent in September this year. The boredom and vice that come up when work goes away are dire problems. They are, in fact, a serious public health problem.

Intriguingly, Mr. Deaton and Ms. Case find that Hispanic and black Americans have not seen the same recent mortality increases. This could be because these groups have historically been more economically marginalized, and so less accustomed to the steady middle-class jobs that white Americans have enjoyed, but that are now vanishing for the least educated among them.

These are just my conjectures about what’s going on, and they’re far from the whole story. We need much more work to understand the situation clearly. But it seems to me that Voltaire’s first two great evils are starting to show up in the social and health statistics, and we should all be concerned about that.

This blog first appeared on November 5, here.