Friday, March 31, 2006
"Relative Poverty" Destroys Your Health
A recent article in The New Yorker entitled "Relative Poverty" describes how the effects of poverty can be exacerbated by comparing one's circumstances to those better off. These effects are initially psychological, but very often lead to conditions that are far more serious - an entire spectrum of ailments known to be abetted by stress, such as heart disease, stroke, ulcers, depression and cancer. And it's not likely to get any better, considering not only the widening gulf between the rich and everybody else, but our relentlessly celebrity-obsessed media culture that flings the wonderful lives and breathtaking advantages of the rich and famous into our faces at every opportunity. We live in a world where intimidation has become entertainment, where the obligation to prostrate oneself before one's "betters" oppresses us not just at work, but even in our homes, in our dreams and - especially - in what we like to do for fun. "Escapism" has become a misnomer, when you are constantly reminded that the actors in even the most frivolous work of fantasy are infinitely better off than you.
The psychological effects of relative poverty not only affect the poor, they affect the middle class as well. A study done on 17.000 members of the British Civil Service between 1967 and 1977 indicated that the health and longevity of low and mid-level civil servants were substantially poorer than those of their bosses. These statistics persisted even when the data was corrected for differences in habits, such as smoking, drinking and lack of exercise. It ain't the top man who keels over, as the old cliche would have it, but the poor schmucks who work for him.
These effects appear to be typical of large bureaucratic organizations where promotion is theoretically possible, but only infrequently provided - leaving the few with some hope, but the rest with none. Smaller groups where everyone is approximately at the same level, and where direct comparison with those more fortunate yields less glaring disparities, are both happier and healthier. Greater consolidation and bureaucratization is increasingly the norm in American corporations - as is career stagnation and the lack of growth in real income among the grunts, while the high flyers soar ever higher into the hypoxic stratosphere of executive compensation. Everything that applies to the British Civil Service of the 70's applies to us in spades. And, remember, civil servants are rarely fired, so the stress for us is even worse. Ironically, these stress-inducing developments are imposed on the American white collar professional at a time when health benefits have become more and more expensive, and less readily available to whole classes of workers.
Overwork and frustration are only likely to increase. I am reminded of the Japanese phenomenon of the Salary Man (or "Sarariman"), the low-level white collar grind who works himself to death by heart attack or stroke. Black-suited, horn-rimmed, Asian dudes collapsing like flies on the pavement. This phenomenon is called "karoshi", and it is with us now - probably one of the main reasons why the American life span lags behind that of other advanced industrial nations (including Japan) despite our supposed wealth and medical know-how.
"Relative Poverty" from The New Yorker
What is a "Salary Man"?
What is "Karoshi"?