Of all the accounts of the plight of the white working class that appeared during the 2016 election, the work of the married Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton seemed to cut most deeply. In 2015, Case and Deaton published research finding that although mortality is declining for virtually every other demographic group in every developed country, it has been rising for middle-aged white Americans since the early nineteen-nineties. The increase, they argued, was due almost exclusively to what they called “deaths of despair”—suicides, drug and alcohol poisoning, and chronic liver disease. During the campaign, their findings raised the possibility that whatever energies had consumed the white working class were not limited to political or cultural grievances but had a more pathological source, one that showed up in the United States but nowhere else.
Case and Deaton published a second paper last month, in which they emphasized that the epidemic they had described was concentrated among white people without any college education. But they also searched for a source for what they had called despair. They wondered if a decline in income might explain the phenomenon, but that idea turned out not to fit the data so well. They noticed that another long-running pattern fit more precisely—a decline in what economists call returns to experience.
The return to experience is a way to describe what you get in return for aging. It describes the increase in wages that workers normally see throughout their careers. The return to experience tends to be higher for more skilled jobs: a doctor might expect the line between what she earns in her first year and what she earns in her fifties to rise in a satisfyingly steady upward trajectory; a coal miner might find it depressingly flat. But even workers with less education and skills grow more efficient the longer they hold a job, and so paying them more makes sense. Unions, in arguing for pay that rises with seniority, invoke a belief in the return to experience. It comes close to measuring what we might otherwise call wisdom.
“This decline in the return to experience closely matches the decline in attachment to the labor force,” Case and Deaton wrote. “Our data are consistent with a model in which the decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.”
The return to experience is not the best-known economic concept, but it is alive in most of our contemporary economic spook stories, in which the callow private-equity analyst has the final power over an industry in which people have long labored, in which the mechanical robot replaces the assembly-line worker, in which the doctor finds his diagnosis corrected by artificial intelligence. It seemed to match at least one emotional vein that ran through the Trump phenomenon, and the more general alienation of the heartland: people are aging, and they are not getting what they think they have earned.
I spoke to Case by phone recently, and she emphasized that the connections between the deaths from despair and the declining returns to experience are still at the hypothesis stage. But, if you wanted to spool out the hypothesis, you could find a compelling story. The chronology matched some general changes in the nature of working-class work, which grew less skilled over time and therefore provided lesser returns to experience. If you focussed on white workers without a college degree, the decline in returns to experience began with those born around 1955. This matched the story of despair deaths, whose appearance Case and Deaton pinpointed at 1990, just when the 1955 birth cohort passed into early middle age. As that group’s declining wages helped usher them out of the labor force, it made sense that more of them might turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. The pattern, begun thirty-five years ago, has not abated. “There are still returns to experience,” Case said, “but they are lower for every birth cohort.”
Since they published their first paper, Case and Deaton have found their e-mail in-boxes filling up with emotional responses from people for whom the idea of an epidemic of despair had personal resonance. “People want to tell their stories,” Case said. In those stories, economic and social despair and health crises often intertwined. “Not being able to get a good job and my girlfriend threw me out,” she said, recounting themes that came up over and over. “Hurt my back at work, lost my job, got evicted, couldn’t get another job.”
Case said that she had lately been drawn to the research of the scholars Sara McLanahan, of Princeton, and Andrew Cherlin, of Johns Hopkins, who study the relationship between family structure and economic circumstance, and whose statistics tended to match many of the stories that were coming in via e-mail. Declining economic prospects seemed to wind their way into all kinds of difficulties. “People who have less education, people whose job prospects aren’t great, are finding it harder and harder to get married,” she said. People were having children and cohabiting, but not necessarily forever. When they encounter a setback, or when their health begins to decline, they find themselves without support. “That’s a story we hear quite a lot,” she said.

One reaction to Case and Deaton’s work has been that the data have been chosen to fit a story. Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia, argued after their first paper that the excess deaths among middle-aged white people were far less extreme than Case and Deaton suggested, and that, if they had slightly adjusted their age cohorts, they would have had a much more modest conclusion. “Aggregate mortality trends are vague generalizations,” Gelman wrote in March, with a co-author, Jonathan Auerbach. “There are many relevant ways to slice up these trends,” they wrote, “and it’s not clear to us that it’s appropriate to frame these trends as a crisis among middle-aged whites.” They also pointed out, as Malcolm Harris did at the Pacific Standard, that African-Americans still have higher fatality rates than whites. Harris noted that Case and Deaton had used different scales for black and white fatalities on their graphs. “In these graphs white lives literally count more, and black lives less.”
The arguments about Case and Deaton’s work have been an echo of the one that consumed so much of the primary campaign, and then the general election, and which is still unresolved: whether the fury of Donald Trump’s supporters came from cultural and racial grievance or from economic plight. Case and Deaton’s scholarship does not settle the question. As they write, more than once, “more work is needed.”
But part of what Case and Deaton offer in their new paper is an emotional logic to an economic argument. If returns to experience are in decline, if wisdom no longer pays off, then that might help suggest why a group of mostly older people who are not, as a group, disadvantaged might become convinced that the country has taken a turn for the worse. It suggests why their grievances should so idealize the past, and why all the talk about coal miners and factories, jobs in which unions have codified returns to experience into the salary structure, might become such a fixation. Whatever comes from the deliberations over Case and Deaton’s statistics, there is within their numbers an especially interesting story.