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June 22, 2004

Inequality Kills You

When folks feel oppressed in the workplace, they often have the fantasy that at least the top dogs in a firm are paying for their financial success with ulcers from the stress and responsibility of running the show.

Turns out-- not so much.

In fact, inequality in status leads to higher stress for those with less power and status, so argues a new book, Status Syndrome: How Your Social Standing Directly Affects Your Health and Life Expectancy. The book extends research Michael Marmot did on British hierarchies in the workplace:

Marmot led the landmark "Whitehall study", which followed the health of British civil servants and their job grades from the 1970s onwards. It showed that those at the bottom of the organisational pile - the clerks and the messengers - were much more likely to suffer coronary heart disease than the mandarins at the top.
So those with less power not only make less money, so (especially in the US) have less access to good health care, they also suffer more stress that increases major causes of ill health.

Because of Thatcherism, the spread in life span in Britain between the poor and wealthy increased:

For example, the difference in life expectancy in the UK between the highest and lowest social classes jumped from about 5.5 years in the 1970s to 9.5 years by the 1990s, after years of Thatcherite government policies.
The argument in the book is that those who worry just about material gain overall, without worry about how inequality shapes personal experiences, is missing profound issues in human desires:
The answer, Marmot said in an interview from London, lies in the psychological effects of inequality: "Your position in the hierarchy very much relates to how much control you have over your life and your opportunities for full social engagement." Those feelings, he and others argue, profoundly affect one's health.
Much as conservatives hate to hear the message, the argument is that equality, in and of itself, is good for human health and happiness. More material goodies aren't enough; we need to feel that we have control of our lives and some equality of status compared to our peers.

Posted by Nathan at June 22, 2004 09:10 AM