Saturday, May 4, 2013

Why Are So Many Middle –Aged Males Committing Suicide?

In the under-appreciated, limited circulation 2010 movie “The Company Men”, actor Chris Cooper plays 57 –year old ‘Phil Woodward’. Woodward is leveraged to the hilt in debt, with a daughter at Brown – who also expects to go on a summer trip to Italy- and a wife who spends most of her days in bed with headaches. He works at “GTX corporation”, in Mass., and takes in 160k a year which is enough to pay his huge mortgage and his daughter’s tuition, board at Brown.

Alas, Phil’s life comes crashing down after the 2008 financial meltdown when GTX shares plummet and make it ripe for the plucking by outside vulture capitalists (recall Mitt Romney) and their corporate lackeys. In order to survive, the GTX CEO Jim Salinger must dump workers to appease Wall Street. By downsizing thousands he cuts whole divisions and expenses, as well as benefits…including health insurance, for older workers (mainly those over 50).

This is where Phil’s economic future ends, as he’s informed one gloomy day by the HR Resource person that he’s no longer needed. On the "up" side, he’s directed to a career placement outfit where he gets assigned his own office. On the first day, in a one-to-one with the chirpy nitwit that staffs it, he's informed he will have to dye his graying hair and lose some weight. The reason? “Because God you’re pushing sixty and look like hell, you’ll never be able to compete with younger men for jobs”.

And so he learns the truth of that over months of job searching, even after his severance expires. Meanwhile, Sarah’s Brown tuition is due and he can’t pay it. His wife offers no support, regarding him as having betrayed her trust and security. So long as he lacks a job she orders him to not return home on a work day until after 6 p.m., “so the neighbors don’t find out.” Phil eventually stops going to the career services after a month or so, preferring to drown his sorrows at a bar until it's time to drive home.

Eventually, with no job prospects that can pay all his massive debts, tuition bills etc., and after suffering insult after insult,  Phil has had it. He closes his garage door one evening, turns on the car ignition while inside it, and ….well, the next scene flips to his funeral.

Fiction? Yes, but perhaps accurately depicting why so many 50-plus American males are killing themselves in record numbers according to just-release CDC stats. Those stats show that from 1999 to 2010 the suicide rate among Americans from 35 to 64 years of age rose by nearly 30 percent. The most pronounced incidence was for men in their 50s, which jumped by nearly 50 percent. A record. (In 2010, according to CDC stats, there were 38,364 suicides compared to 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle accidents.)

The news report published yesterday (‘Suicide Rates Among Middle-Aged Have Increased Sharply Says CDC’, Denver Post) pinpoints that:  “a generation that has faced years of economic worry and has easy access to prescription pain killers” may have formed a lethal combination leading to the dismal death stats.

Is this so hard to understand? Not really? As long ago as 1996, a Fortune 500 white paper (which had been issued to CEOs, CFOs in secret) alerted companies that age 50 ought to be considered the age of “diminishing financial returns” for justifying whether to retain an employee. That milestone age, the paper observed, is the best time to downsize to preserve financial stability and share prices. It meant less risk in terms of health care insurance costs, as well as less money having to be shelled out since older workers tended to earn more – going up the corporate ladder.

And so millions of 50 plus males have been floundering since the mid-1990s, most leveraged to the hilt like Phil Woodward, and unable to escape. Even if they worked round the clock at three burger flipping jobs they’d not be able to make up the losses – say to their 401ks (raided to pay bills, or monies lost in several stock crashes) and no one really wants to hire them anyway.

Caught in economic limbo, too young to claim Social Security or Medicare, and often having to take care of the expenses of college –age kids and sickly parents, they opt to end it all. Their economic life having ended, they see their biological life can’t be supported without it.

In most cases, of course, this extreme end is chosen only after all other options are exhausted, including unemployment insurance, and getting Social Security disability. Often the latter is the only possible economic life line left to them, but with waiting times measured in years, they’re unable to hold on.  If they themselves are faced with a pre-existing medical condition (i.e. cancer) on top of their other grief, and obligations, they will feel it's time to phone it in. After all, the country doesn't give two shits about them.

When one strips away the veneer of materialist greed, and overt consumption, the U.S. Neoliberal market economy offers nada in terms of social support for displaced older workers. They are on their own. The tragedy is that market economies like the U.S. - governed by cowboy capitalists determined to keep the cattle chewing their cuds- only emphasize money and power. Even the so-called "religious people" (who haven't yet figured out that Mammon is the real god of this market country, not "God" of their imaginations) buy into the addictive enticements of money and power.

In such a capitalist-driven, consumerist organizational economic model, wherein the resource “pie” for the non-wealthy elite grows ever smaller, the young are threats to us oldsters, as we are threats to them, as neighbor is to neighbor. It can't be otherwise. This capitalist model has seen fit, in other words, to destroy our areas of commonality and common cause, replacing neutral civic space with demeaning commercial space and commercialist, market values. People-employees like 'Phil Woodward' - are merely expendable cogs in this massive market consumption machine. If profit margins fall too low, they are jettisoned like yesterday's fishwrap. Perhaps no one has expressed our nation's economic fascism better than author Charles Reich ('Opposing the System', Crown Books, p. 103 )

"When society itself comes to be modeled on economic and organizational principles, all of the forces that bind people together are torn apart in the struggle for survival. Community is destroyed because we are no longer 'in this together' because everyone is a threat to everyone else."

This is also why, instead of giving Phil support after he's booted, the remaining employees' only words to him are of the form: "Did you hear anything about ME? Do they plan to downsize ME?"  All about self-interest.

In similar fashion, Reich  describes the visceral 'dog-eat-dog' and endless economic warfare that ensues between people in the never ending quest to 'make it' and not be left behind. A tragic game wherein every one, every man, woman and child has a 'market value' and all abiding principles, social or moral, are reduced to economics. Alas, the cost resides in devastated marriages, families and communities.

The capitalist driven “rupture” can occur as quickly as when your neighbor builds a large recreational pool, or puts in a hot tub, and you can’t afford one. Or when he makes a great home improvement add-on while you are left to humble by with the status quo.

By comparison, the endemic socialist, communitarian structures of Barbados or Norway (for example) promote a healthy growth of the social commonweal and the belief that what is done for the benefit of one, or a few, redounds to the benefit of all. Hence, the imperatives for government subsidized low cost housing, national health insurance for all, free education through college

That's why I couldn't help thinking how much better 'Phil Woodward' would have fared in Barbados, if he'd lost a similar job there. He'd have had his gov't provided health insurance to fall back on, and his daughter Sarah would get a free college education at the University of the West Indies. 

Phil also wouldn't have waited overly long for a new and maybe better job. While the U.S. capitalist system engenders a perpetual creative destruction that ravages precious human resources, Barbados -  with fewer human resources, must maximize each. There isn't the quantity of highly qualified people to allow facile disposal or other squandering in wasteful competition- or to appease a stock market. In the U.S., the exact opposite holds. Huge amounts of resources- human and natural -  are yearly squandered in competitive games that have only one or a few 'winners'.

In effect, U.S. capitalism creates a self-destructive, wasteful culture that translates into a self-destructive and wasteful social pattern. If a neighbor (like 'Phil Woodward') suddenly become unemployed - and knocked out of the current consumerist culture - they may be jettisoned as friends. They no longer share the same 'buying' interests (or power) after all. Once fast friends become leery of them, and being around them. What fun are they at cocktail parties, or even barbecues? Who wants to hear about their pathetic inability to keep up with the latest market crazes? Repeated untold millions of times, one gets an entire toxic culture, and diseased society

Thus, the best analogy I can give to what is occurring in the U.S. is a malignant cancer. As in cancer, when one limited group of cells grows too much - it does so at the expense of the whole body.

The moral of the story for marginalized, middle-aged American workers is a cogent one: Living in a cruel, casino world governed by Wall Street mandates, they need to live far below their means. If one is earning $100,000 a year then, it is best to live like a $50,000/year earner. If one earns $60,000 a year, it’s best to live at half that level. That also means a smaller home with a smaller mortgage and yes, if kids are in the picture- they make their college applications to State U., not to Brown or Harvard! Then, if and when the downsize axe arrives, the family can more easily cope since they’re living at a much more modest level anyway.

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