John McManus: Has Ireland developed shitlife syndrome?

Life expectancy has started to peak as inequality rises

Disinterested pedestrians passing a young adult male  on a Dublin bridge in 2011. Photograph: iStock

Disinterested pedestrians passing a young adult male on a Dublin bridge in 2011. Photograph: iStock

 

Life expectancy, for so long the hallmark of progress, has started falling in the US and the UK. Nobody is really sure why, but by far the the most colourful explanation being proffered at the moment is “shitlife syndrome” or the psychological effect on people of living in relative poverty in an affluent society.

The term was was first used to describe people in the US who were locked into a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They were uneducated or undereducated and could not access decent jobs. They had very little available to them by way of social supports such as healthcare and housing.

The commentator and academic Will Hutton summed up the effects on people of shitlife syndrome in a column in the the Observer a few weeks ago.

“Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.”

The situation in the UK has reached crisis level, in his opinion. The rate of increase in life expectancy has slowed dramatically, and death rates among older people are starting to increase. The situation in the US is even more dire, with death rates increasing among all levels of society and, most tellingly, among non-Hispanic whites. Much of the increase is being driven by alcohol and drug abuse as well as suicide.

Insurance companies

So how are we doing here? Information on life expectancy in Ireland is quite hard to come by. But the Institute of Actuaries has done some work on it, as it is of vital interest to members. (One of the more esoteric effects of shitlife syndrome is that insurance companies will have to pay out less in pensions than they expected.)

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Irish actuaries are of the view that the situation here is similar to that pertaining in the UK. There has been a “marked slowdown” in “mortality improvements” in Ireland since 2010, but it is less pronounced than in the UK.

The mortality rate for Irish people over 85 is experiencing a “negative average mortality improvement” which one presumes is actuary speak for dying younger. Another trend here seems to be that women are faring slightly worse.

It’s something of a glass half full-glass half empty moment. There is a natural inclination to focus on the fact that we seem to be better than the British at something, even if it’s only at not dying young.

However, it might more prudent to proceed on the basis that, as is often the case, we are just catching up. There is no shortage of evidence that life for many in the Republic is getting worse rather than better.

There are almost one million people on waiting lists for medical procedures. It is quite an achievement for a country with a population of 4.8 million. The Irish health system makes the stuttering National Health Service in the UK look like some sort of ultra-efficient Japanese car production plant.

Then there are currently 9,861 people in emergency accommodation. Home ownership rates are falling and survey after survey shows that young people are giving up on the idea of ever owning their own home. Rents are ridiculous. All of these sounds like vectors for shitlife syndrome.

And then there is welfare dependency. The Government spends about €20 billion a year trying to alleviate the worst effects of poverty. Some two million people get a payment of some sort or another (although many of them receive the universal child benefit payments).

Welfare payments

This is where it gets interesting. Ireland has one the highest levels of welfare payments among developed countries and they go a long way towards redistributing wealth from rich to poor. And ultimately shitlife syndrome is just a colourful expression for the impact of rising inequality; a dangerous malaise that is affecting nearly all wealthy counties.

Inequality is measured by something called the Gini Coefficient which goes from zero to one, with one representing complete inequality. Ireland scores 0.3, well below the UK (0.35) and US (0.39) and pretty much middle of the pack. The least unequal country is Iceland, with a score of 0.25.

So maybe it is possible that despite the failings of the health service, a full-blown housing crisis and huge levels of welfare dependency, we have avoided the worst societal effects of inequality?

It seems improbable. But this week we heard that the number of Irish people returning to live in Ireland from abroad has overtaken those emigrating for the first time in 10 years, while the number of people at work in the State is now almost 20,000 higher than it was before the crash.

Maybe we do have a better quality of shitlife.

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