Lean Times

Do people live longer during recessions?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

No one enjoys being short of cash, stressed about finding a job, or worried about the future. And you might think that cutting back on things like regular doctor visits, leisure activities, and nutritious food would make people less healthy. It turns out, however, that people are actually more likely to live longer during hard times.

In a 2000 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, economist Christopher Ruhm found that in the United States, a 1 percentage point increase in a state's unemployment rate brings a 0.5 to 0.6 percent decrease in its mortality rate. The largest impact was on 20- to 44-year-olds -- who saw a 2 percent decrease -- while the elderly saw a slight decrease as well.

For young people, the main factors driving the decrease are reductions in motor vehicle accidents, suicide, and homicide. According to Ruhm's research, people tend to smoke less and lose weight during economic downturns (those cigarettes and foie gras are expensive) and get more physical activity and sleep (more walking, less partying).

No one enjoys being short of cash, stressed about finding a job, or worried about the future. And you might think that cutting back on things like regular doctor visits, leisure activities, and nutritious food would make people less healthy. It turns out, however, that people are actually more likely to live longer during hard times.

In a 2000 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, economist Christopher Ruhm found that in the United States, a 1 percentage point increase in a state’s unemployment rate brings a 0.5 to 0.6 percent decrease in its mortality rate. The largest impact was on 20- to 44-year-olds — who saw a 2 percent decrease — while the elderly saw a slight decrease as well.

For young people, the main factors driving the decrease are reductions in motor vehicle accidents, suicide, and homicide. According to Ruhm’s research, people tend to smoke less and lose weight during economic downturns (those cigarettes and foie gras are expensive) and get more physical activity and sleep (more walking, less partying).

Some evidence suggests the trend holds internationally too. In a 2006 study Ruhm found that across OECD countries — the world’s most developed — mortality increases 0.4 percent when unemployment decreases 1 percentage point. And in a paper published this year, economists Hideki Ariizumi and Tammy Schirle of Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University compared the U.S. data to trends in Canada. Similar to findings for the United States, they discovered a 0.53 percent reduction in mortality rates for every 1 percentage point increase in unemployment, largely due to big drops in mortality among 20- to 44-year-olds, indicating the trend holds despite differences in health-care systems.

So maybe there’s a bright side for all those job seekers: Life may be hard right now, but you’ll probably have more time to live it.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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