America's New Economy Means No One Has a Life Anymore

Life in the new American economy is about work, work and more work. Add mountains of debt and spiraling costs, it is no wonder people are suffering from severe stress related diseases. Off to Spain, anyone?
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Ben Cohen
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Life in the new American economy is about work, work and more work. Add mountains of debt and spiraling costs, it is no wonder people are suffering from severe stress related diseases. Off to Spain, anyone?
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Your future life in America

Other than topless actresses on daytime TV and two hour lunches, Europeans take several things for granted in their day to day lives that most Americans could not conceive of.  While at a party in DC with some Spanish friends of mine last weekend, we discussed the challenges of living in America, comparing it to our respective homelands and wondered whether staying here long term was a real possibility. At the end of the conversation, our American Dreams didn't look quite so rosy.

The large majority of Europeans know that they are never at risk of being denied decent health care due to costs. If you are British, you can make a doctor's appointment or go to the hospital without ever seeing a bill. If you are German, the mixture of private/non profit insurance and government funding pay for any health related problems you may have, and there are strict limits on out of pocket expenses. The notion that you would need to go into debt to pay for essential care is completely unthinkable.

In America, health care costs are the number one cause of bankruptcy.

In Europe, the notion that you would need to go into serious debt to pay for a decent education is also an alien concept. While the UK has introduced fees to pay for university, the yearly fees range from £6,000 (US$9,700) to £9,000 (US$14,550), and that includes top institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. In France, you would pay around 181 Euros ($214) a year for a bachelors degree.

Going to Harvard in the US costs over $45,000/year.

Spiraling and overpriced house prices, rising tuition and extortionate health care costs means that to live a relatively normal life in the US, you must take on large amounts of debt if you have the misfortune of not being born incredibly wealthy. In America, crippling debt isn't something you worry about. It is something you simply live with.

Many of my friends are now thinking about having children, and living in a city like DC makes this almost impossible if you want to actually look after them. Rent in the district is the 2nd highest in the country, and when you factor in child care costs, pre school education costs, college funds etc etc, you are looking at a lifetime of debt and crazy work hours. Americans work longer and harder hours than virtually every other nation on the planet, and are rewarded with rapidly rising costs. You work more and more and your money buys less and less.

Another problem with the American way of life is the break down of the family support system. When you have multiple generations dealing with excessive debt, it is far harder to get financial help from parents and grandparents who themselves are struggling to pay medical bills, rising mortgage payments and an increased cost of living. Parents are also taking the burden of their children's tuition costs, making future help with houses/grandchildren even more unlikely. American parents are no different to Spanish, French or German parents - they want to help, but financial circumstance dictates that they cannot.

The effects of excessive debt are not just financial - they are physical too. US News reported that significant financial debt can take a serious toll on your health:

Gallup surveyed 29,560 Americans who graduated from college between 1990 and 2014, and found that only 24 percent of those who graduated with $50,000 or more in student loan debt reported good physical health, compared to 34 percent of those with no student debt. "Debt feels like an awful shameful thing," says financial counselor Christine Hassler. "It can take away so much control from our lives, and that's when we really start to feel the stress."

The symptoms of stress related illness are very, very real. The report continues:

Stress, especially financial or other stress that lasts for days, weeks, months or even years, can impact your immune system and cause you to succumb to illnesses quicker, says Guy Mayeda​, a cardiologist and vice chairman at the department of medicine ​at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. “Stress produces a hormone called cortisol,” he says, “which overtime can cause you to gain weight and weakens your immune system.”

Long-term stress is linked to increased blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and more. “Stress causes you to engage in bad behaviors more readily,” Mayeda says. “For example, if someone smokes, they’re less likely to quit smoking when they’re under a lot of stress.”

The prospect of this type of life is incomprehensible to a Spaniard. It is incomprehensible to most people born outside of the US for that matter. I am certain that the majority of my international friends in DC will make their way back to their native land at some point, probably when they decide to settle down and have children. They will settle for lower paying jobs, okay healthcare, and underfunded schools. They will forego the wine and cheese selection at Whole Foods for whatever their local supermercado happens to have in stock, and will drink cheap café solos in local bars rather than $5 coffees at Starbucks. Why? Because it will allow them to have a life.

Is the Spanish lifestyle on the way out?

The Spanish way of life...

Personally, I'm staying in the US for the foreseeable future. America is a great country with incredible people and a dynamism you cannot replicate anywhere else on the planet (when you come from a country that looks down on boldness and innovation, trust me, it is something to be proud of). I have hope that the economic paradigm will shift, and a more equitable, humane system will emerge as people begin to reject debt and stress as a way of life. It has happened before, and can easily happen again. But if it does not, I too will choose happiness and health over economic success. After all, you only get one go at the game we call life, and I intend to make the best of it.