Declining well-being of Americans

Professor Peter Turchin explains his observation that the well-being of Americans has been declining over the last four decades — a process called immiseration:

Last year I had an interesting conversation with someone I’ll call the Washington Insider. She asked me why my structural-demographic model predicted rising instability in the USA, probably peaking with a major outbreak of political violence in the 2020s. I started giving the explanation based on the three main forces: popular immiseration, intra-elite competition, and state fragility. But I didn’t get far because she asked me, what immiseration? What are you talking about? We’ve never lived better than today. Global poverty is declining, child mortality is declining, violence is declining. We have access to the level of technology that is miraculous compared to what previous generations had. Just look at the massive data gathered together by Max Rosen, or read Steven Pinker’s books to be impressed with how good things are.

There are three biases that help sustain this rosy view. First, the focus on global issues. But the decrease of poverty in China (which is what drives declining global poverty, because Chinese population is so huge), or the drop in child mortality in Africa, is irrelevant to the working America. People everywhere compare themselves not to some distant places, but to the standard of living they experienced in their parents home. And the majority of American population sees that in many important ways they are worse off than their parents (as we will see below).

Second, the Washington Insider talks to other members of the 1 percent, and to some in the top 10 percent. The top-income segments of the American population have done fabulously in the last decades, thank you very much.

Third, many economic statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt. […]

So what has been happening with the well-being of common, non-elite Americans? In my work I use three broad measures of well-being: economic, biological (health), and social.


-Economic: Wages of non-elite workers show “rapid, almost linear growth to the late 1970s, stagnation and decline (especially for unskilled labor) thereafter”; the “relative wage” (the nominal wage divided by GDP per capita) drops sharply after 1960; labor participation has been trending downward regardless of education level since at least the late 1970s.

-Biological: Average height of native-born Americans stopped growing after the 1980s (and has declined for some demographic groups); life expectancy growth has lagged behind Western Europe and for some groups, life expectancy has declined in absolute terms; suicide rates are climbing for all ethnic groups.

-Social: Average age of marriage and percentage of people unmarried are on the rise.

Remember when the original Star Wars came out? That was around the historic peak of American economic, social and biological well-being. Hard times are coming, and for an increasing number of people, have already arrived.