Longer life expectancy is one of the hallmarks of modern American life — one of those facts that seems to have bearing on just about everything. It challenges our social insurance programs, alters our labor force dynamics, and, when paired with the phenomenon of low birth rates, generally gives demographers a headache. But of course, it's also a wonderful triumph! And it gives us a big reason to pat ourselves on the back as a society. The question is: whose back do we pat? And how do we understand our own role as individuals in the story?
In the Journal of Social History, Helen Zoe Veit looks back at the way American opinion-makers first began to make public sense of longer life expectancy back when it really started to become part of the American experience in the late 19th- and early 20th Century. The article is behind a paywall, so here's how Claude Fischer at Berkeley explains it:
Americans lived longer largely because of collective, civic programs – from sewer construction and agricultural extension to NIH medical research – and yet, as Veit describes it, the message that many American opinion-leaders pumped out was that individual responsibility was critical. Some changes in personal habits no doubt helped extend lives – mothers became more careful about infant care, adults washed more often with soap, for example – but they were a minor part of the story.
This line of argument made economic sense for the insurance companies who were often making it; it helped keep their costs down, after all. And as Fischer argues, it also may have made a kind of psychological sense for the ordinary Americans who were the audience for these messages: "When life is highly insecure and even seems random, when so many people get struck down at any time and not just in their old age, it is hard to have a sense of personal control… But if life starts to look safer and more predictable, taking initiative becomes a more plausible strategy."
That said, we may now be paying a price for attributing too much weight to those individual decisions in cases where institutional, collective action really deserves the credit. The problem of the anti-vaccine movement seems a prime case in point. Immunity is collective, and presided over by institutions. But at a time when we feel rampant distrust of institutions along with a hyper-inflated — even inflamed — sense of personal responsibility, we run the risk of cutting away at the roots of public well-being.