Americans Without a College Degree Now Living Shorter Lives Than in 2010

Life expectancies for individuals without a college degree have been declining since 2010, while the racial divide in those figures has been closing.

(Thomas Wells/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP)

(CN) — What was praised as a success story just a decade ago, declining mortality rates across the board, has seen a steady reversal in one group largely due to an increase in cardiovascular disease and untreated hypertension.

Researchers from Princeton studied adult mortality data from 1990 to 2018 and calculated how long the average 25-year-old could expect to live before turning 75. They published their findings Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team looked at mortality data across cohorts using death certificates from the National Vital Statistical System, which includes 48.9 million deaths between 1990 and 2018, and drew on population data from the American Survey and the Current Population Surveys.

Data in hand, they compiled a time series summarizing the adult mortality rate each year for ages 25 to 75, which is meant to summarize the average mortality rate in a given year, rather than the age to which a specific person can hope to live. While individuals with a four-year college degree have always enjoyed a greater life expectancy, those without have fared increasingly poorly over the past decade.

“We know that the lives of those without a BA (currently two-thirds of the adult population in the US) are harder,” said author Dr. Anne Case, professor of economics at Princeton, in an email. “The labor market turned against this group, offering ever lower wages and poorer working conditions. In addition, home life became less stable — marriage rates fell dramatically for this group. What our work does is document that the burden being shouldered includes the risk of earlier mortality. The Covid epidemic is apt to magnify these differences between education groups further.”

The authors cite a number of root causes for the decline in life expectancy among this group, namely that it’s grown ever more difficult to find a well-paying job for people who lack degrees. Without a well-paying job, it’s harder to start or to support a family or enjoy hobbies and other activities that for many give life meaning. Without meaning, it’s easier to slide into depression, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, a poor diet and even suicide — all of which often result in so-called “deaths of despair.” It’s a slippery slope.

“Good jobs have become increasingly rare for workers without a college diploma, many of whom have lost their jobs to globalization and automation and for whom the cost of employer-provided health care has increasingly priced them out of the high-quality labor market,” the study states. “For them, real wages have fallen as has participation in the labor force.”

Looking at race, however, the numbers tell a bit of a different story. Black Americans have traditionally had lower life expectancies than their white counterparts, but over the past 30 years that gap narrowed significantly. There’s now around a one-year difference between Black and white Americans with the same level of education.

“Adult life expectancy in 2018 for Blacks and whites with a BA look much more like each other than they look like this measure of life expectancy for people of the same race who do not hold a BA,” Case said in her email. “This is a big change from 1990.”

Until 2010 the average life expectancy had been rising steadily since 1990 across all education levels. While that trend has continued for individuals with a bachelor’s degree, it began to abruptly drop off about a decade ago for those without. The authors explain that cardiovascular disease started rising again in 2012, which coincided with an increase in obesity and smoking — health issues affecting more Americans who lack a degree.

Wages for the group also declined during that period. In the early 1980s, individuals with a college degree could expect to make around 40% more money than someone without one, but by the late 2010s this disparity had grown to 80%. Better jobs also tend to come with better health plans and access to better doctors and medical services.

“America is the richest large country in the world, with frontier medical technology, yet we still see large declines for Americans without a four-year degree, even prior to the arrival of Covid-19,” Case said in a statement accompanying the study. “Without a four-year college diploma, it is increasingly difficult to build a meaningful and successful life in the United States. Given that today, two-thirds of adults in America do not have a four-year college degree, this is a significant finding.”

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