ICYMI, death by drug overdose is now the leading cause of death of Americans under the age of 50. That’s correct. It’s overtaken car accidents, guns and breast cancer. 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2016. And the large majority of them from opioid-related overdoses (including heroin). It roughly comes out to 115 people dying every day from opioid-related deaths…just in the U.S.
When I expound upon these statistics [more here if you want a quick tutorial] to my tech brethren I typically get momentary look of shock followed by a “that’s crazy, I didn’t know that.” And then a “why do you care about this?” asked. Usually I reply with “why don’t you?” There are so many reasons every American should care about the opioid epidemic but allow me to give you one that every capitalist should care about — it’s devastating the U.S. workforce and making us less competitive.
Labor Force Participation Rate
Yes, the unemployment rate is low — extremely low. But amongst the flaws of the unemployment rate as a metric for economic health is that it doesn’t show the people who have opted out of the workforce. For this we need to look at labor force participation rate — the number of the people in the labor force divided by the total population. Labor force participation rate has been falling since 2000 — overall and by gender.
Much of the the overall decline can be explained by the boomer generation retiring. However, when broken out by age there is a most disturbing fact. Prime age (25–54) workforce participation rate has also experienced an overall decline and when you break out men and women you see a similar trend with 2015 accounting for an 18 year low.
This means that almost one out of every nine prime-aged man is not only unemployed, but has given up looking for work. That’s how you can have an unemployment rate under 4% for prime-age males, but also have 12% of that cohort not in the workforce.
Why is this happening?
There are several reasons this is happening and each probably deserves it’s own post, especially the hollowing out of middle skills jobs, the mismatch in workers’ skills possessed and skills needed in new jobs and the feeling that much of the new work is “female oriented” (e.g. healthcare and education). But Princeton Economist and former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Krueger, showed recently that the decline in the labor force participation rate and the opioid epidemic are inextricably linked.
Krueger’s study showed that nearly 20% of the drop in men’s workforce participation and 25% of women’s is attributable to the opioid epidemic. Which came first? It’s really a vicious cycle and hard to know for sure, but as Krueger says,
“Regardless of the direction of causality, the opioid crisis and depressed labor force participation are now intertwined in many parts of the U.S.”
The Council of Economic Advisors estimates that the United States is losing $25.9B per year due to decreased productivity caused by the opioid epidemic — and this does not include fatalities. But if that’s not enough for you, there’s more.
You can see it when you look at the maps below: states most affected by the opioid epidemic often also have lower workforce participation.
Prime age men that are out of labor force self-reported disability and pain is at 33%, compared to 2.6% of prime-age employed men.
Multiply that by 4
I wish that was the worst of it. But in addition to this large swath (12–13M) of Americans directly struggling with chronic opioid use, they are also affecting at least 2–4 people in their daily life — parents, kids, significant others and friends. That would be about 36–48M Americans. For reference, the popular dating app Bumble has about 27M users worldwide
Don’t throw your hands up
It’s easy to pick your jaw up off the floor after reading these numbers and go about your day or just mention them as a ‘DYK?’ at a dinner party. But I hope some subsegment of you help with finding solutions. The Opioid epidemic is affecting you. It’s affecting the economy. It’s affecting your company. Your ability to hire. Your ability to grow. Your colleagues and their ability to be effective at work — and life. Opioids are an economic coping strategy.
I’m especially interested in talking to people who want to help with the treatment side of this crisis. Not only because prevention requires government intervention and regulation but also because treatment for opioid addiction holds the promise of improving all addiction treatment (which is currently subpar). There are major opportunities on the medical and social-sides (jobs, financial training, etc.) of treatment and the one that is maybe most foundational — data.
So, if you do care, let’s talk.