Sociologists have noticed a troubling trend: Death rates of middle-class whites, particularly those with lower levels of education, have started creeping upward since 1999. The U.S. is the only developed economy where this trend has been taking place.
There are various theories as to why this trend has been taking place, including everything from higher rates of suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism among middle-aged white men. Those trends, some experts have theorized, might have to do with higher rates of opioid prescriptions among this group, as well as the financial pessimism that’s often greater among white people.
But one Johns Hopkins sociologist has a slightly different explanation. Sociologist Andrew Cherlin thinks part of the problem may be reference group theory, which basically says that people figure out where they stand by comparing themselves to people they consider peers.
“It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities,” Cherlin writes in a New York Times op-ed this week. That might be one reason whites — who still have higher life-expectancies and weekly earnings than their black and Hispanic counterparts — feel greater pessimism than those groups.