Gail Sheehy: Code Red on the American Dream

The toll on emotional health for women in their mid-forties to mid-fifties has a significant impact on our economy — and the health of our nation

Why do Americans in midlife rank lowest in well-being and highest in depression? They eat more, smoke more, and are developing serious chronic diseases earlier than in the past, according to the latest findings of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

Here’s a good guess: Most of them can’t afford to keep up their payments on the American dream. Our economic success formula is still bold as a double shot of espresso for top earners, who get tax breaks to fly corporate jets. But for middle class women in particular, that formula is being watered down to decaf tea.

Almost 70% of boomers are providing some financial support to their adult children and grandchildren. They are picking up the pieces as their sons and daughters lose jobs and bail out of over-mortgaged homes. Layer on top of that the cost of long-term health care for their parents, who are living into their 80s and 90s with multiple chronic illnesses. The average family caregiver is a woman in her late 40s who still has at least one child at home and works outside the home while providing an average of 20 hours a week of hands-on care for a loved one. There you have the recipe for the Club Sandwich Caregiver.

The toll and stress on emotional health for women in the core group of baby boomers —now mid-40s to mid-50s — has a significant impact on our economy and the health of our nation. Startling data gathered by Healthways since 2008 reveals that even women who still have jobs are feeling increasingly dissatisfied with their work environment. These women are reporting increases in sadness, stress, worry, and lost sleep. “If you’re sad, stressed, worried, and tired, you won’t have enough energy to exercise and you’re not going to make healthy eating choices,” says Janet Calhoun, Director of Innovation at Healthways.

Midlife women’s low well-being is taking a toll on this country. And it will be felt not just in continued spiraling healthcare costs. Calhoun reports “very compelling data that shows individuals with low well-being have much lower productivity and performance, and that is a huge economic drain.”

No wonder the psychic anxiety is driving up depression. There is no time for women in the Club Sandwich generation to get fit with exercise and slow food. So what can we do about it?

We now face the very real prospect that the game of chicken between Congress and the President over the deficit will not avert an economic calamity. Big Foots in finance and political pundits agreed with one another at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival: The sky is falling, and most of the American public didn’t get the memo. Author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman warned that we will not pull out of our slow, gradual decline unless the public gets the message: “This is Code Red … if we don’t raise taxes and invest in the rebuilding of the pillars of our success, the American dream will die.”

It looks like President Obama is now willing to accept the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s proposal to make major cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. “It’s reviving the Cat Food Commission,” groans Trudy L. Mason, New York State Democratic Committeewoman, referring to Simpson’s neglect of the elderly and women of all ages. Simpson has written that Social Security is “like a milk cow with 310 million tits.” The President did not admonish the head of his deficit-reduction commission. Far from eating cake, 64 percent of Social Security beneficiaries depend on their benefit for 50 to 90 percent of their income.

There comes a point where we have to stand our ground. The last best hope is for citizens working through collective action. But the only kinds of grassroots activism you can find on the internet comes from Tea Party conservatives or anti-capitalist liberals — the same divide that strangles realistic solutions in Washington.

So, send a memo to your friends: Let’s organize citizen action and get radical about saving the American dream.

Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.

7 comments so far.

  1. avatar Paul Smith says:

    That there are not more calls to protest is one of the dispiriting facts of our times. Hardly a mention of the blistering, take no prisioners of an article in New York magazine, “Something Rotten”last week by Frank Rich. He removed crowns from the head of David Rubin, Larry Summers, Ben Benarake, Timothy Geitner and replaced them with thorns. He wrote “What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunnng lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brougt America to it gravest financial crises since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers…As the ghost of Hamlet’s father might have said it, America will be stalked by its foul and unresolved crimes until they are “are burnt and purged away… After the savings-and-loan debacle of the ’80′s, some 80 miscreants wen to jail.”

    • avatar Paul Smith says:

      correction: “some 800 miscreants went to jail.”

    • avatar Lila says:

      Paul, your comparison of the miscreants of the 80s and those of the 00s is a pretty good argument that we have reached a point where some people are too big and rich… and powerful… to be prosecuted. Not a good bellwether for a country which is supposed to be about “liberty and justice for all.”

  2. avatar Lila says:

    The best chance for grassroots action is from those who will be most immediately impacted, and that means those who have spent decades paying into a system which is now about to be pulled out from under them: those of middle age and older.

    Unfortunately, these same people are the ones whose time and energy are so thoroughly sapped as you describe in your article.

  3. avatar Dinah says:

    Can we please stop latching onto the things President Obama does as negotiating techniques?  Also, Frank Rich is the guy who, along with Maureen Dowd, completely trashed Al Gore.

  4. avatar Sue ZQ says:

    Some of us are also paying spousal support.

    I’m counting my blessings, but it IS annoying.