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Suicide and the Unemployed

By Paul Solman

The relationship between unemployment and suicide is well established. But is the persistence of long-term unemployment an added factor in the rising suicide rate these days, especially for older workers? Paul Solman responds to a viewer’s comment relating to this PBS NewsHour story originally broadcast on May 3.

Paul Solman: Amidst a cascade of correspondence in reaction to our recent broadcast story on age discrimination and long-term unemployment, we received this email from “Karen” in Tennessee:

Why aren’t people talking about age discrimination at a major level? I have been unemployed for more than five years. I have had training to add new skills to two degrees. Training and education mean nothing if no one will hire you. I live in a “right to work” state where corporations can do anything and government is in collusion in perpetrating this endemic discrimination …

Companies aren’t afraid of older workers — they can and do anything they want. I have done everything a person can do to get a job and survive. I’m a woman alone and nobody cares. That’s why the suicides have gone up drastically.

Karen’s email, and particularly her last sentence, reminded me of a host of data, both old and new.

The U.S. ranks near the middle of the global suicide listings, according to the World Health Organization
and consistently comes in around 10th when it comes to self-reported happiness, behind only the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Switzerland and Holland

But the suicide rate is rising in the United States, up by something like a sixth since the late ’90s. (See the bottom half of Figure 1 on page six of the paper we linked to.)

In the latest year for which there are good numbers, 2011, there were about 38,000 suicides in America, compared to 32,000 motor vehicle deaths and 15,000 homicides.

A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the suicide rate from 1928 to 2007 rose and fell with the economy, spiking when the Great Depression began and reaching its all-time high in 1933, plummeting during World War II, rising again during the deep recession of the 1974-75 and the recession of the early ’80s, though peaking a few years after unemployment hit its post-war peak in 1982. The suicide rate dropped to its lowest level ever in the year 2000, when the dot-com boom was at its zenith and unemployment had bottomed out at 4 percent.

But ever since the dot-com collapse, as the chart above illustrates, America’s suicide rate has been rising. And just 10 days ago in The New York Times, researchers David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford summarized the findings of their new book, “The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills.” They wrote in part:

“People looking for work are about twice as likely to end their lives as those who have jobs.
In the United States, the suicide rate, which had slowly risen since 2000, jumped during and after the 2007-09 recession. In a new book, we estimate that 4,750 ‘excess’ suicides — that is, deaths above what pre-existing trends would predict — occurred from 2007 to 2010. Rates of such suicides were significantly greater in the states that experienced the greatest job losses. Deaths from suicide overtook deaths from car crashes in 2009.”

For the purposes of this post, the most salient fact may be that of all segments of the population during the span of time between 1928 and 2007, suicide rates of Americans aged 55-64 experienced the most significant decline.

A few weeks ago, a Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) study reported a startling reverse of the long-term trend with regard to suicide and age; among men and women age 55-64, there was a dramatic increase in rate of suicides from 1999 to 2010.

The question, then: what has changed to reverse this trend?

As Stuckler and Basu pointed out in the Times:

“The correlation between unemployment and suicide has been observed since the 19th century. People looking for work are about twice as likely to end their lives as those who have jobs.”

But why, suddenly, has suicide risen among people age 55-64? As a journalist, my answer relies on what I call anecdata.

After doing a story in 2010 on the “99ers” – Americans out of work for 99 weeks or more — here is a relevant quote from an email we received:

“It would be dishonest of me to say that I have not considered that suicide may be my only way out if I cannot soon find work. I and millions of others have few other options.”

And here’s another:

“Although I can’t consider suicide, I understand where these people are at!”

As regular readers of this page know, we’ve been chronicling the fate of the unemployed and underemployed since January of 2011, when we introduced our own measure, “U-7”. And U-7 has indeed come down some, from 16.7 percent back then to 16 percent last month. But compare “average weeks unemployed,” then to now. The number has actually risen— from 33.8 weeks in January of 2011 to 36.5 weeks in April of 2013.

And, as we reported in the broadcast story mentioned at the top of this post, for Americans 55 and older, it takes about a year on average to find work, longer than for any other age group. Nick Corcodilos, who answers questions on this page’s Tuesday “Ask the Headhunter” column, also has elaborated on the issue of older worker unemployment and blatant age discrimination.

One of the unforgettable lessons of statistics is that correlation does not equal causation. But when the data show older (but not old) Americans out of work longer than others and older (but not old) Americans committing suicide at a higher rate than they have in almost a century, how can you help but wonder if the frustration of the former isn’t contributing to the latter?

Finally, a few excerpts from viewer emails from to the story that occasioned this post:

Anonymous: The Friday May 3 show about workers 50 or older who are unemployed resonated with me … My heart breaks for all of us unemployed and underemployed.

Dale Kurow — New York, N.Y.: Is there a fund that is helping the older long term unemployed?

Cindy Grossman — Newton, Mass.: I was thrilled to see your segment about age discrimination. Finally, the truth on national TV. However, that story needs to tie into the unending comments by so-called experts that people need to keep working until long after age 65. The fact is that even if people are healthy enough to work longer, they cannot get jobs due to age discrimination … “Expert” after “expert” on NPR and on other media ignore this ugly truth when they go on about people needing to work far past age 65.

Lili Pintea-Reed — Jamestown, N.Y.: Paul, In reference to your slough off of the question “are people unemployed due to age discrimination.”

Here are two interviews I had over the last year:

Example No. 1: I was asked outright by the interviewer, “Why are you trying to take a job away from someone who needs it? Don’t you have a pension or something?” Answer: No I don’t have a pension, etc., and why would that matter?

Example No. 2: As I was waiting to be interviewed for a job I overheard my interviewer say to her boss, “There [is] someone out there that should be your boss.” I just got up and left I was so angry.

I am 58 and need a job like everyone else. I figure to work until 70. What on earth are we older workers to do?

Flo Samuels — Hayward, Calif.: I agree that employers should want an employee who will make their business more profitable. Unfortunately that approach, at least in my experience, also makes them feel they have been inadequate as a manager and they certainly don’t want someone new showing them up. Been interviewed and not hired, been hired and not allowed to do what got me hired. Explain how to overcome that.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.

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