Of all the accounts of the plight of the white working class that appeared during the 2016 election, the work of the married Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton seemed to cut most deeply. In 2015, Case and Deaton published research finding that although mortality is declining for virtually every other demographic group in every developed country, it has been rising for middle-aged white Americans since the early nineteen-nineties. The increase, they argued, was due almost exclusively to what they called “deaths of despair”—suicides, drug and alcohol poisoning, and chronic liver disease. During the campaign, their findings raised the possibility that whatever energies had consumed the white working class were not limited to political or cultural grievances but had a more pathological source, one that showed up in the United States but nowhere else.
Case and Deaton published a second paper last month, in which they emphasized that the epidemic they had described was concentrated among white people without any college education. But they also searched for a source for what they had called despair. They wondered if a decline in income might explain the phenomenon, but that idea turned out not to fit the data so well. They noticed that another long-running pattern fit more precisely—a decline in what economists call returns to experience.
The return to experience is a way to describe what you get in return for aging. It describes the increase in wages that workers normally see throughout their careers. The return to experience tends to be higher for more skilled jobs: a doctor might expect the line between what she earns in her first year and what she earns in her fifties to rise in a satisfyingly steady upward trajectory; a coal miner might find it depressingly flat. But even workers with less education and skills grow more efficient the longer they hold a job, and so paying them more makes sense. Unions, in arguing for pay that rises with seniority, invoke a belief in the return to experience. It comes close to measuring what we might otherwise call wisdom.
“This decline in the return to experience closely matches the decline in attachment to the labor force,” Case and Deaton wrote. “Our data are consistent with a model in which the decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.”