By Angela Vullo
“He never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.” Death of a Salesman
Sept. 18, 2020–Despite the threat of spreading, and even dying of COVID, America’s youth are defying the warnings. Many believe that the virus is a hoax, and keep putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk. What is causing this irrational behavior?
It might be said that no one really cares whether these youth live or die, but only if they spread the virus. If the concern about their well-being were so great, it would have surfaced long before COVID came along; because this same group of people was already dying early, and even if they may not be dying of COVID today, they are definitely dying unnecessary deaths.
For some time now, the rate of death among young people has been increasing. For many of them, turning to drugs, and even suicide, appeared to be the only way out of their miserable existence. COVID merely added to their malcontent.
It’s the economy, stupid
Millennials were born into this world as the economy shifted increasingly rapidly in the 1980s from a real economy of manufacturing to one of deregulation and free trade. The measure of productivity became the economy of making money. For those who were not tempted by the lure of Wall Street and big money, and basically wanted to live an “average life” of having a family, a stable job, and owning a home, that life no longer was possible. What was offered to them instead was the gig economy or just settling for no job at all. When many Millennials were hit hard by the 2008 recession, they lost their jobs and even had to move back home with their parents.
With no job, no money, and no purpose in life, it’s extremely difficult to fulfill life’s dreams and expectations. It is quite understandable that many of them would flee into the virtual world, seeking approval by a circle of like-minded friends to try and relieve their depression.
A June 11, 2020 article in The Atlantic, which addressed the causes behind Millennial depression, pinpointed the role of social media.
Millennials are the first generation to have come of age with Facebook and Twitter—compelled to compare themselves with others but not jaded enough to know how empty these comparisons can be. Gen Z actually has a more healthily skeptical view toward social media, says Kate Comtois, a professor who focuses on suicide prevention at the University of Washington. These platforms had already ripened by the time Gen Z became teens, and perhaps as a result, they see social media’s downsides more clearly. Millennials, by contrast, were the first to reveal their life to an online audience, and some felt stung by the reception.
Pressure to succumb to popular opinion is now being taken to the extreme by a new social movement called “Cancel Culture.” This is an attempt to destroy all individuality by demanding collective thinking, i.e., forcing people to conform in order to be liked and accepted. With no real life in this Orwellian world, and no prospect for change, let alone a real future, this can become quite alluring. But what happens when social media turns on, or rejects, these youth has been documented many times over. Many feel they no longer have a reason to live.
Of course, this is not just a Millennial problem, but a symptom of one that is much deeper for our nation as a whole. It has its roots in the economic downshift going back almost 60 years. The thinking that the country last had during the FDR-JFK years is long gone. We used to live in a great nation, where patriots were prepared to give their lives for their country, and did; now our young people feel that they have been betrayed by the government and society, and have no country to even live for.
It is time that we do something about this crisis before it is too late. Addressing it from the standpoint of our youth is a good place to start.
The only way out
A proposal in the U.S. Congress offers the country a way out. It is similar to what was done by Franklin Roosevelt, when he used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation as a national bank to rebuild the country during the Great Depression. On March 31, 2020, HR 6422, “The National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2020” was introduced by Rep Danny Davis (D, IL), which calls for $4 trillion to be invested into industries and manufacturing, building infrastructure and creating 25 million new jobs. The bill explicitly identifies urgent investments into disadvantaged communities, minorities and specifically youth apprentice programs. The money alone might sound appealing, but without a workforce to build the infrastructure it is merely pie in the sky.
Apprentice programs are urgently needed for our young people, especially for those who do not want to go to college or can’t afford it. HR 6422’s National Infrastructure Bank would offer them a new life, a way out of their lives of despair, with high-paying “jobs with dignity” rebuilding the country. Without this offer, many of them would not even be motivated to pass the drug test to qualify for the job.
As under FDR’s leadership, aggressive government action to create opportunities for youth can rebuild morale, and the will to live and contribute to society. FDR’s CCC, created in his first 100 days, ultimately involved more than 3 million young men, providing them not only with work, but with training which qualified them to join the burgeoning economy or the military during the economic mobilization for World War II.
Who could possibly be against this great idea? But it would require a strong commitment from the federal government, like what FDR did, in order to restore our people’s faith in government. It would unite the country with a commitment to the future. Wasn’t this once the basis for the American Dream?
Several new reports have recently been released exposing the magnitude of the youth crisis, from the specific suicide statistics, the causes behind the suicides, to a more general social breakdown in the country as a whole.
Some of the reports identified in this article are from the Center for Health Statistics, the Center for Disease Control, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Social Progress Index. Let’s first take a look at some of the general statistics.
National Center for Health Statistics
On September 11, Bloomberg reported some of the alarming figures from the National Center for Health Statistics:
Suicide rates among youth ages 10 to 24 increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018, data released Thursday from the National Center for Health Statistics shows, rising from almost 7 per 100,000 population to nearly 11. Comparing three-year averages from 2007 to 2009 to the time period between 2016 and 2018 brought the increase down to 47%.
The U.S. suicide rate among all age groups was 14 per 100,000 in 2018.
The 2016 to 2018 suicide rate among those between ages 10 and 24 was highest in more rural states including Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Alaska topped that list with 31.4 young suicides per 100,000 population.
Northeastern states — including New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — showed the lowest rates. Despite their relatively small numbers, New Jersey experienced a 39% rise, New York saw an increase of about 44%, and Massachusetts showed a jump of 64%.
The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality
To further elaborate the Millennial mental health crisis, The Atlantic’s June 2020 article cited two more reports: first from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. in addition to the Case-Deaton book on “Deaths of Despair.”
In a report published last year by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, the economists Mark Duggan and Jackie Li found that mortality rates for people from ages 25 to 34 had risen by more than 20 percent since 2008. “That is, mortality rates among millennials ages 20 to 34 were substantially higher in 2016 than among their counterparts from Generation X when they were [their age] exactly 16 years earlier,” they write. The main contributors to the increase have been suicides and drug overdoses, and the increase was highest among white people.
Trust for America’s Health
The Atlantic then cites a report from the Trust for America’s Health last year which concluded that “drug-related deaths among people ages 18 to 34 more than doubled from 2007 to 2017, while alcohol-related deaths rose by 69 percent and suicides by 35 percent.”
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
The third report featured by The Atlantic was the book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, issued in March by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who detail their research findings on this phenomenon, with an emphasis on their economic plight.
This tendency toward premature death has been especially pronounced among Millennials who never earned a college degree. In 2017, white people without a bachelor’s degree born in 1980 were four times more likely to die by suicide than those with a college degree, as the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton write in their new book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Among those without college degrees, the later you were born, the more likely you are at any given age to live in pain, binge-drink, have poor health, and die from suicide or a drug overdose. White people in their 20s and 30s are dying from alcoholic liver disease, a condition that normally takes decades of hard drinking to develop.
To be sure, the rise in Millennial suicides is set against a broader backdrop of despair: Rates of suicide are going up for all Americans, including Z, the generation after Millennials. People ages 45 to 64 still have the highest overall risk of suicide.
For Millennials, the reason behind this uptick appears to be that young people with less education face more financial strain than previous generations did. The good jobs that used to be available to people without college degrees have slowly evaporated. “Jobs are a source of meaning in our lives,” says Cheryl Fulton, a professor in the counseling program at Texas State University. “So if you don’t have a job or are underemployed, you’re not deriving that satisfaction that comes from the meaning and purpose a job provides.”
Rising health-care costs have encouraged employers to reduce head counts and have eaten into employees’ salaries, Case and Deaton write. In addition, the decline in manufacturing jobs and the rise of the gig economy have driven non-college-educated young people’s wages into the ground. Millennials without a college degree are earning far less in early adulthood than previous generations did, according to another report in the Stanford series. The median salary for a 25-year-old man with a high-school degree or less is $29,000 a year, which is about $2,600 less than what Gen Xers earned at that age and nearly $10,000 less than Baby Boomers. In 1970, more than 90 percent of 30-year-olds were earning more than their parents were at the same age; in 2010, only half of 30-year-olds were. Millennials have, on average, no housing wealth.
Depression and anxiety since COVID
A month ago, Live Science cited a recent survey detailing how more than 60% of young adults were feeling symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that young adults were particularly prone to these increases.
The study researchers analyzed information from more than 5,400 U.S. adults ages 18 and older who completed an online survey in late June.
The percentage of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder increased about threefold and the percentage reporting symptoms of depressive disorder increased about fourfold, compared with levels seen in a survey conducted around the same period in 2019, the study found.
Overall, in the 2020 survey, about 41% of participants reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition; with 31% experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% initiating or increasing use of substances (including alcohol or marijuana) to cope with stress tied to the pandemic, and nearly 11% reporting that they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.
The toll was particularly striking among adults ages 18 to 24. In this group, about 63% reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, 25% reported starting or increasing use of substances, and 25% reported seriously considering suicide in the past 30 days. For comparison, in a national survey conducted in 2018, about 14% of young adults reported an episode of major depression and 11% reported serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.
More deadly than COVID
A New York Times column on September 9, entitled, “We’re No. 28! And Dropping,” addressed the current crisis from a broader standpoint in their report on the just-released Social Progress Index report. The report’s findings explicitly show the decline of the United States overall, and why this crisis cannot be addressed as an individual problem, or seen as a result of a specific circumstance like the pandemic; it is a result of a much bigger change of thinking, which has resulted in the United States showing shocking deficiencies in meeting the population’s needs.
The report finds
that out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.
The index, inspired by research of Nobel-winning economists, collects 50 metrics of well-being — nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life. Norway comes out on top in the 2020 edition, followed by Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand. South Sudan is at the bottom, with Chad, Central African Republic and Eritrea just behind.
The United States, despite its immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranks 28th — having slipped from 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.
The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.
The Social Progress Index finds that Americans have health statistics similar to those of people in Chile, Jordan and Albania, while kids in the United States get an education roughly on par with what children get in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. A majority of countries have lower homicide rates, and most other advanced countries have lower traffic fatality rates and better sanitation and internet access.
Isn’t it obvious that this decline in what the United States used to be, compared to what it is today, might have a relationship as to why our young people are committing suicide?
Change the economic thinking
This brings us back to the opening quote from the play Death of a Salesman, which was written by Arthur Miller soon after WWII. The play exemplified the change in economic and social thinking that was already in motion from the Franklin Roosevelt years, a change from which we have yet to recover. People were already beginning to fixate on money rather than physical production, and being subjected to pressure to conform to that standard.
Although social media did not exist then, the social process resembles what we see today, including the pressure to conform to popular opinion: “Don’t think outside the box.” Remember the man in the grey flannel suit? What playwright Arthur Miller addressed in his 1949 play, was the idea that people must sell themselves to be liked, and that popularity is the measure of success. Ultimately, that is the reason why Willie Loman, the main character who is described in the opening quote, commits suicide.
Willie Loman was described at his funeral, “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . a salesman has got to dream, boy.”
Today, just as then, what a world of illusion we live in! Unless we start now to create a world with a solid foundation, one that allows people the hope of a better life, our young people and our nation will continue to die.
It’s time to change the narrative away from the world of perception. The question is, who will control that narrative and on what standard will it be based? We call upon our fellow Americans to examine how the U.S. economy worked in the past, when building something real was the order of the day, and when life was allowed to flourish.