White, middle-aged Americans are suffering more than you might think

Trump touched upon this "extreme distress” in his final debate with Biden

FILE PHOTO: Hundreds of people line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claim in Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S. June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo
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If you know any 48-year-old white American males without a college education, maybe say something nice to them. They are in a group which is having a hard time. That broadly is the conclusion of a hugely informative study by two academics, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald entitled Trends in Extreme Distress in the United States 1993-2019.

This "extreme distress" is something Donald Trump touched upon last week in his final presidential debate with Joe Biden, when he spoke of the opioid crisis, alcoholism, and suicides affecting many families across the US – including, as it happens, the families of both presidential candidates.

The Blanchflower-Oswald research is based on data of 8.1 million randomly sampled US citizens. As the authors put it, the figures reveal “a sense of exceptional bleakness of life” resulting in “increasing numbers of deaths of despair among midlife white US persons with low levels of educational attainment.”

This has been attributed to those who are so unhappy with their lives that “they have reacted by committing suicide and taking dangerous quantities of opioids and alcohol.” By “extreme distress” the authors mean that these unhappy people say to themselves “every day of my life is a bad day” for 30 days in a row.

Like the imagined 48-year-old I mentioned earlier, the numbers of middle aged white American men repeatedly having “bad days” rose from five per cent in 1993 to 11 per cent in 2019 – more than doubling. So what is going on?

FILE PHOTO: Cataldo Ambulance medics and other first responders revive a 32-year-old man who was found unresponsive and not breathing after an opioid overdose on a sidewalk in the Boston suburb of Everett, Massachusetts, U.S. August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

In their public speeches Mr Biden points the finger at Mr Trump, and Mr Trump points at Mr Biden. The truth is that this unhappiness rose through the Democratic presidencies of Clinton and Obama, as well as the Republican presidencies of George W Bush and Mr Trump himself.

Reminiscences of the America of the 1950s and 1960s will not fix the America of the 2020s

The study’s authors suggest something much more fundamental than the day-to-day politics of whichever party is in the White House. It is a profound and irreversible change to the jobs market in the US and worldwide.

The authors say that the strongest statistical predictor of extreme distress is when someone says "I am unable to work," connected to what appears to be the irreversible decline in manufacturing jobs. Bruce Springsteen's elegy to the decline of "Rust Belt" America, "My Hometown," dates from the 1980s.

It is a lament for lost steel and car plant jobs and ultimately the death of the postwar American dream, in which Springsteen’s foreman says that the jobs “are going, boys / And they ain’t coming back.”

He was prophetic. One consequence, apparently, is that by 2019, opioid deaths in the US reached 50,000 for the first time, according to provisional data from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. That accounted for more than two thirds of the 71,000 fatal overdoses in the US from all drugs.

1950:  A worker on the production line at a Ford car factory.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During the presidential election campaign Covid-19 and race relations have been two of the most obvious hot button issues, but the research suggests that for many manual workers – whose parents and grandparents had well-paying jobs in manufacturing – in their “hometowns,” the American dream is dead or dying.

In Mr Trump’s case he has in the past been protective of yesterday’s industries – coal, old fashioned steel and car plants relying on the internal combustion engine.

The challenge for whoever wins the 2020 election is a challenge for leaders all over the world. Artificial intelligence, climate change, online remote working and even coronavirus, have changed the way we live and also the way we work. Populism is often backward looking.

Mr Trump’s famous slogan “Make America Great Again” is a perfect example. It brilliantly captured the distress of those whose pain shines through the Blanchflower-Oswald study and who believe their parents and grandparents did better. But reminiscences of the America of the 1950s and 1960s will not fix the America of the 2020s. High-paying employers are those that demand exceptional skills from workers.

Mostly that means a college education for good jobs with Apple, Google and Silicon Valley start-ups. The alternative economy – that of Uber and Amazon – is generally of the low skill, low paid variety.

The middle America of the once great middle class of skilled craftsmen and women has been squeezed for years. The consequent unhappiness will not be solved by one vote this November, but it might at least be recognised.

The American pollster Frank Luntz has worked with Republican candidates for decades. In 2016, Luntz says, millions of voters turned to Mr Trump because they thought Hillary Clinton was interested only in herself, not them. Mr Trump in 2016 convinced them he understood the lives of ordinary people.

But in 2020, Mr Trump is seen as the one who is utterly self-absorbed. Joe Biden says that this election is not about the Biden family or Trump’s family. “It’s about your family,” he repeatedly tells voters.

If Mr Biden’s message cuts through, it will be because for many Americans 2020 is just one miserable year in three unhappy decades. The jobs “ain’t coming back.” The 2020 winner will deliver hope for an America desperate for change.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National