The New York Times published this article today on middle-aged suicides on the rise. It asserted that “the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.”
Odd, because I wrote this essay in July, 2012. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is paying attention.
Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
And as an aside, it is not about gun violence. Middle-aged men start skimming prescription drugs. One pill here, one pill there and pretty soon they have enough for an overdose that will kill him silently and painlessly in the middle of the night, with as little mess as necessary for his family to clean up. He died in his sleep.
Presented for your consideration.
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There is one calculation that almost every American man over fifty* has made in his head that he will almost never admit to. The ones who have made it more than once and many times a year are the ones who have families and responsibilities who now find themselves at the scary end of a medical diagnosis and/or the threat or reality of unemployment.
That calculation is:
“Am I worth more dead than alive?”
The columns and totals never really see a piece of paper, but they are nonetheless very real.
In the assets column:
That term life insurance that has five more years before it expires and has no value: $250,000.00; Cash in the bank: $50,000.00; That 401(k) I started too late; $30,000.00; Stocks and bonds I randomly bought; $35,000.00; House equity, assuming it can actually be sold in this economy: $100,000.00… and on through the value of furniture, cars and power tools in the garage.
In the liabilities column:
I just got fired, so my unemployment is only $481.00 a week but bills with mortgage and food is $2,100 a month, losing $200.00 a month… I’ll soon lose my health insurance and COBRA is a $900.00 set back per month making that $1,100.00 a month just standing still… if I am unemployed for more than six months, that will be about $10,000.00 gone from the bank account, making the past couple years of savings a waste of time… chances are, I will be unemployed for the rest of my life in this economy, so that will just stretch on, losing my family $20,000.00 a year with me being alive. I will lose my health coverage in less than a year and a half… That is a lot of cash, and that life insurance policy just inched its way to being one year less valuable with no employment in sight…
I just got diagnosed with a pretty serious health condition that will make it difficult for me to work. I will soon be out of a job as my employer will get tired of me calling in sick all the time… I will lose my health care coverage.. if I go into the hospital, that will cost about $8,000.00 a day, depleting my cash in about a week… the mortgage is due in a week… the last tuition bill is due in a couple months… and on and on down to how much dog food is left and how much that will cost to replenish…
If I die today, my family will be ok. If I die in a year or two, my family will be bankrupt, penniless and possibly homeless.
Sure, the kids will say that I am worth more to them alive than dead, regardless of how much money I have. Yeah, “I love you even if you are broke,” “you bring joy to others around you” and “life is not always about money” are things I expect to hear from friends and family.
But I know they are not true. Not really.
Our culture rewards those who are healthy and able to work and shuns those who have fallen on hard times. It guts the sick, dying and unemployed quickly in order to salvage what it can before the corpse begins to rot. It knows the time value of money.
Men know it too. We have made those calculations in our head at every turn throughout our lives. When we buy a house, we calculate how long we’ll have to be employed at this job to pay the mortgage in full. When we have kids, we calculate what we’ll have to earn and sock away to pay for the birthday parties, soccer practice, bicycles, cars and college tuition even as we watch them laugh and dance as if they haven’t a care in the world; even as we laugh and dance with them. We worry our backs and minds will give out before we are able to deliver them into adulthood and breath a sigh of relief when we no longer have to be concerned they won’t have enough to eat.
When we get to about fifty, we eventually make the ultimate calculation. We arrive at a break-even, whether anyone wants us to or not; whether we admit it or not.
The only thing we fear more than getting it wrong is losing the ability to execute if we ever needed to.
*With the exception of highly-paid politicians or the super-rich who never have to worry about health care. For clarification, this isn’t me. I’m fine and gainfully employed at my own company despite my best efforts at getting my boss to fire me 🙂 This is a persona of a 50+ year old man who had a “good job” for most of his life.