December 26, 2021
by Stephen Stofka
The launch of the James Webb telescope on Christmas morning promises a new glimpse into the early history of the universe. If the complex folding telescope performs as planned, it will capture the light from galaxies that first erupted into being after the birth of the universe. Events in our lives are less cosmic but help shape our outlook for many years. A 30-year old born in the early 1990s was old enough to fully grasp the horror of the attack on the World Trade Center. The financial crisis interrupted the life plans of this age cohort. As families lost their jobs and homes, many high school graduates felt they had to pursue further education to prepare for a tough job market. A decade later came the Covid pandemic. The Millennial generation has been seasoned by repeated shocks.
Adapting to this turbulence is especially difficult for immigrants, many of whom fled harrowing circumstances in the country of their birth. In 2020, the U.N. estimated 280 million immigrants, a 27% increase in the past decade. For fifty years, America has been the top destination of immigrants. 50 million people, about 15% of the U.S. population, is foreign-born (Armstrong & Richter, 2021).
Almost 20% of Germany’s 83 million people are immigrants. Other destination countries were Saudi Arabia, Russia and the U.K. Russia has the distinction of being both a destination and origin country for immigrants. Availability of work and proximity to overpopulated countries draws migrant workers to these destination countries. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are top destinations for Indian and Pakistani migrant workers.
In 2020, migrant workers around the world sent back more than $500 billion in remittances to their home country (World Bank, 2021). That is about the size of Sweden’s GDP and it is a lucrative trade for the international banking community which charges more than 6% in fees.
Americans are a resilient bunch and have withstood a major economic shock every decade. Is that resilience wearing thin? Public health measures and medical advances have increased life expectancy at birth by ten years in the past sixty years. In 2014, life expectancy plateaued at almost 79 years (FRED, 2021). Preliminary 2020 data from the CDC indicates that the pandemic has reduced that expectancy by 1.5 years to 77.3 years (CDC, 2021). A recent study of growing obesity rates in middle aged adults estimated a 4 – 7 year reduction in lifespan (Hruby & Hu, 2015).
Higher suicide rates and gun violence are important contributors to a rising rate of premature death, defined by the CDC as deaths before age 75. In Los Angeles, the premature death rate has risen to the same level as twenty years ago. The trend is not isolated to heavily populated urban areas. By 2019, the premature death rate of sparsely populated Riley County, Kansas had risen to its 2001 peak. In 2021, its violent crime increased by almost 50%, an indication of the stress the pandemic has had on communities throughout the country (KHI, 2021)
The eldest of the Millennial generation touched 40 this year. They will gradually assume the reins of policymaking from earlier generations that took too much for granted. A life expectancy that is flat or declining indicates structural socioeconomic problems that will require clarity, focus and commitment to steer in another direction.
Armstrong, M., & Richter, F. (2021, December 17). Infographic: Migration Destinations and origins. Statista Infographics. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/chart/26424/top-destination-and-origin-countries-of-international-migrants/
CDC. (2021, July). Vital Statistics Rapid Release . Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr015-508.pdf
FRED (Federal Reserve). (2020, November 4). Life Expectancy at Birth, Total for the United States. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/ SPDYNLE00INUSA. Los Angeles County Premature Deaths: CDC20N2U006037. Riley County, Kansas Premature Deaths: CDC20N2U020161.
Hruby, A., & Hu, F. B. (2015, July). The epidemiology of obesity: A big picture. PharmacoEconomics. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4859313/
KHI – Kansas Health Institute. (2021). Riley County. Kansas Health Institute. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://www.khi.org/assets/uploads/news/15162/riley_county_2021.pdf. World Bank. (2021, May 12). Defying predictions, remittance flows remain strong during covid-19 crisis. World Bank. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2021/05/12/defying-predictions-remittance-flows-remain-strong-during-covid-19-crisis