Resurrected: “Demographics”

This and other posts titled “Resurrected” are reposts from an earlier blog I kept that now, thanks to no longer being affiliated with UNC–Chapel Hill, I cannot continue to use. I’m adding them to jumpstart the process, and to provide some examples of the kind of commentary I envision adding in the coming weeks and months. The posts will be edited from their original form only to correct any errors of grammar and style I might find.

This is particularly pertinent in light of recent discussion of the Opioid epidemic. I’ll have something to say about that over the next few days, I think.

I originally posted this on November 15, 2015.

This is the image that sums up the conversation that many smart folks are having this week:


What that red line shows is that in the late 1990s the mortality rate of middle-aged white people in the United States, after declining for decades, began to rise. The article is titled “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non–Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” and is by Anne Case and recent Nobel (Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences) awardee Angus Deaton. Their primary finding is that this is driven by increased effects of alcohol, drugs, and suicide. In addition, they argue, “Concurrent declines in self-reported health, mental health, and ability to work, increased reports of pain, and deteriorating measures of liver function all point to increasing midlife distress.”

You can find intelligent discussions of what this means to American society here and here and here. Most seem to point to the effect of economic policies pursued in the US in recent decades.

As I observed on Facebook yesterday when I posted this article yesterday:

Again, what does it say about our society that significant demographic groups can see declines in the length of their lives, let alone the quality of life.

As someone who studies the USSR, it’s troubling to recall that one unmistakeable of the sclerosis of its society in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a demographic shift not entirely unlike this one.

Stagnation, indeed.

As I think about this more, I wanted to build a conversation about this. I have two questions in mind:

1) To what extent is our impression of a demographic crisis in the late Soviet period based on hard data, and what does that data show us about demographics. Is this primary a working-class phenomenon? An urban one? A a rural one? A general one? Was there a shift between the 1980s and the 1990s, when the crisis grew deeper under Yeltsin.

2) What does this say about our conception of Soviet society in the years leading to 1985 as one in a state of “stagnation,” a label applied only after the fact by critics, especially Gorbachev? It seems as if historians are beginning to challenge this narrative, finding areas where the late Brezhnev USSR retained considerable dynamism. Does this apparent demographic crunch give lie to this conception?

A couple of days later, I added the following:

As I was thinking more about this story, it brought me back to thinking about this article from the American Prospect from a while back: What’s Killing Poor White Women.