Today’s episode is about guns, drugs, cars, and a big question: Why do Americans die so much younger than people in any other rich country?
Before the 1990s, average life expectancy in the U.S. was not much different than it was in western Europe: Germany, France, the U.K. But since the 1990s, something very strange and clearly bad has happened. Americans got much richer than Europeans. But American life spans have fallen behind those of Europeans so dramatically that today, the typical American has the same healthy life expectancy as someone in the poorest town in England.
So what’s going on? To unravel this mystery, today’s guest is John Burn-Murdoch, a data journalist at the Financial Times, who recently published a magisterial investigation of the American death gap.
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In the following excerpt, Derek asks John Burn-Murdoch to describe some of the key findings from his research.
Derek Thompson: I want to start by talking about money. I don’t think many people on either side of the Atlantic understand how much richer the average American is than the average European. So yes, you and I are here to talk about death and longevity, but I want to begin here with money to put into context: How much richer is the typical American compared to, say, the typical English person?
John Burn-Murdoch: Sure. So using the best data we have on this, this is looking at the median equivalized disposable household income. So just to unpack that a little bit, that means once you adjust for how many people are in any given household, this is how much money you’ve got to spend, discretionary spending at the end of each week, month, whatever. And if we take the median, so slap bang in the middle of the population, half the people have less, half have more, the average U.S. household is about 60 percent richer than the average household in Britain. And I can throw in the likes of Germany in there as well, or France, so Western Europe as a whole, you’re talking about 60 percent. So a huge difference.
Thompson: It’s really unbelievable. And you mentioned, I think at the top of your essay, a statistic about the average car wash manager in Alabama compared to the typical English person. Maybe just give us that bit of context, if you can, before we move on to the meat of this discussion.
Burn-Murdoch: Yeah, I mean, I should say there, they weren’t strictly averages, but they were just a couple of eye-catching, striking examples that I’d seen recently. So this was a car wash manager at a place called Bucky’s in Alabama, where there was a job advert for a job paying $125,000. And then we also recently had a job ad go out for someone to be head of cybersecurity at the U.K.’s Treasury. And that one ... paid about half less. So you could get paid about 50 percent more to manage a car wash in Alabama than to head up cybersecurity for the British Treasury.
Thompson: And yet, despite this enormous advantage in wealth, as you’ve pointed out, as many researchers have pointed out, as I’ve written about several times in The Atlantic, Americans die earlier than the English for just about every level of income and for just about any age up to 65. That is, American babies are more likely to die before they turn 5; American teens, more likely to die before they turn 20; American adults, more likely to die before they turn 65. You’ve dug into the data here on U.S. longevity. What is the big picture?
Burn-Murdoch: As you’ve said there, it’s just so striking. And this was one of those pieces where at every turn, every time I calculated something, I had to double-check it because I thought, “It can’t be this stark.” And there’s many ways of looking at it. I think the point you’ve made there about the age distribution is probably the most useful way of thinking about this, because I think there’s this instinct whenever we hear life expectancy, because the numbers are always in the 70s or 80s, we think, “OK, so this is about older folks, this is about whether everyone dies at age 84 or at age 79, it’s that kind of thing.” So we’re sort of cued up to think about older age, to think about diseases, to think about cancer, to think that ultimately what we’re saying here is Americans are dying at roughly five years younger age than the Brits, but it’s not really how it works when you look under the hood.
So what we’re actually seeing here is that once you get to be 65, 70, 75 in America or in the U.K. or in Western Europe, things look pretty similar in terms of your chances of making it through the next, say, 25 years. But the big difference is that there are far, far, far, far more Americans dying age 15, age 25, age 35 than there are Brits, Germans, French. And when you think about what life expectancy is, those young deaths make a very big difference because each of those deaths is wiping out 60, 70, 50 years of life. Whereas if it were just the case ... that everyone was dying, say, one year earlier, that would have less impact on the overall number. So yeah, it’s all about the fact that growing up in the U.S. is far, far more deadly than growing up in any other developed country in the world.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: John Burn-Murdoch
Producer: Devon Manze