Race still matters, but the transformations since 1990 point to another phenomenon, and this one hinges on education (and the income, better jobs, and access to health care it can bring). The benefits of education are accruing to those high on the ladder and a heavy price is being paid by those at the bottom.
Since 1990, life expectancy has declined, on average, four years for white males and females with the least education (less than 12 years). This means that in a perverse race to the bottom, whites with the least education are “catching up” with their black peers by dying sooner.
At the top end of the education spectrum, we see a more positive convergence, led by substantial gains of blacks. The result is a sharply narrowing longevity gap between whites and blacks with 16 or more years of education. Nevertheless, blacks have not yet fully caught up.
Overall, in a very short span, we’ve seen a widening gulf between those with the least and most education in America.
In other words, despite our advances in health care and life expectancy for the U.S. as a nation, not all longevity boats have risen equally, and some are actually sinking. As a result, relative to the average American, those with the least education are still living in a longevity time warp: 1972 for white men; 1964 for white women; 1962 for black women; and 1954 for black men. Today, we stand at the brink of a biomedical revolution that will likely accelerate increases in longevity, but it is evident that some people will be left behind.
At the root of this disparity is a profound inequality of opportunity that lack of education creates. Better health is the result of the insights and understanding about health and diet, for example, that education tends to enhance, as well as greater access to insurance and good health care. But it is also the chronic stress and pressures to make ends meet that life on the margins creates. That grind takes a very heavy life-long toll. Research by the MacArthur Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health points to biochemical evidence that stress shortens lives.
As a nation, our educational mobility is stalling. The younger generation is no longer getting more education than its parents. Today, for the first time, the average education of people entering the workforce is lower than the average education of those leaving it.
But we’re not doomed. We know what works, and we have at our fingertips some of the best minds in the world. We just need to focus our world-renown innovative spirit on education as well as mobile phones and social media.
We can start with a call for life-long education. That education must begin early, long before the first day of school. Research clearly shows that the first eight years of life are crucial for setting the foundation for success in school.
At the other end, we need clearer pathways to postsecondary education, whether that be a high-quality trade school for those who can’t imagine another day behind a book, or more support for those who go on to four-year college. Currently far too many youth are dropping out of two- or four-year colleges. We have good evidence of interventions that can make a difference, including modest stipends tied to grades and supports for students juggling work, kids, and school. We need to implement them.
Finally, we need to encourage life-long learning beyond age 18 or 25. In this “information age” it’s nonsensical to stack all our learning at the front end of life. We need to re-engage in the joy of learning something new at age 30, 40, 50, and 90. Online courses and new digital media tools are pointing the way to expanded opportunities to stay connected to learning beyond a traditional classroom. We need to continue innovating in these areas.
Many attribute Michael Harrington’s seminal book for inspiring JFK and later Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty—programs and supports that helped the poor live a more humane life. We are at a similar crossroads today. As the world has become more competitive and complicated, we need more education to succeed—and to live healthier and longer lives. If we don’t create better education ladders for Americans to climb, we will find ourselves in a polarized country, as those with the least education visit emergency rooms for their care, tax public coffers with (preventable) chronic conditions, and strain an already-too-costly health care system. With a better education system and new opportunities for lifelong learning, we might be able to prevent many of the health issues in the first place.
Olshansky and Rowe are with the MacArthur Foundation Network on Aging in Society