This has not been a good week for chaps of a certain age, ethnicity and temperament. The number of dead old white guys (DOWGs) is on the rise. We are apparently taking our lives in surprisingly large numbers, despite all our apparent advantages.
Sadly, it doesn’t end there. We also seem to have growing rates of health problems, especially the mental variety. A key indicator of possible dementia (apart from all the usual ones I can’t remember), is developing a new or inappropriate sense of humour. This is all getting a bit serious.
Younger readers may be thinking that, with the possible exception of parents and grandparents, the premature departure of the codgerati may not be such a bad thing. After all, the baby boomers allegedly have a vice-like grip on the levers of power and influence, which they not only seem reluctant to relinquish, but which they always pull to their own benefit.
According to some much-discussed recent research by a couple of prominent economists, chaps in America are are checking out early because their prospects don’t look too good. Nothing surprising here, perhaps. An earlier generation of pundits developed an “economic theory of suicide”, which suggested that:
People will kill themselves when the utility of being dead is higher than the utility of being alive.
Who says economists can’t explain important social phenomena?
Nevertheless, these higher rates of suicide are counter-intuitive and take some explaining. Paul Krugman puts it down to growing income inequality and the ending of the “American Dream”.
Krugman may have a point. It’s surely no coincidence that this is happening when underlying structural unemployment among older types who have frequently given up looking for work is actually on the rise.
Staying at home playing video games, boozing and smoking dope is certainly one way of passing increased leisure time, but it’s not good for health or self-esteem. One of the modern age’s great paradoxes is that many people really have been freed from the drudgery of meaningless, repetitive labour, but this hasn’t necessarily led to purposeful and fulfilling lives either. Far from it.
Men may be especially bad at coping with this sort of thing. I know this is a gross generalisation and/or simplification, but women seem better equipped to deal with life’s vicissitudes and better at maintaining the sorts of social networks that help give life some sort of meaning and purpose. The fact that divorce rates are also rising among the senior set isn’t helping older males in this regard either.
For those fortunate enough to have interesting, well-paid jobs in our declining years it’s possible to be suitably academic and dispassionate about all this. But others face a dispiriting double whammy: not only are jobs disappearing, but they were often incapable of providing for an interesting old age while they lasted.
Given the looming pension crisis – which people who take an interest in such things all seem to think is inevitable – we can expect more of these problems, I fear. Around one-quarter of men and one-third of women apparently have no superannuation at all. Less that 20% of males have more than $100,000 in super. For women the figure is barely 10%.
Even if you’re going gaga this probably doesn’t look like a side-splitting scenario. It isn’t, but it’s not obvious what could or should be done in the current environment. At a time when budget-trimming looks like coming back into fashion, there may not be too much wealth to redistribute.
Australia could potentially solve part of the problem by importing part of the world’s surplus of young people to redress a looming demographic imbalance. But even if we can collectively solve the politics surrounding such a policy, what about all those old codgers with not much to do?
The prospect of 20 years of daytime TV might send anyone dotty – or deprive them of the will to live. Developing an inappropriate sense of humour in such circumstances might be the least of our worries.
Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor