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Adolescent occupational expectations and adult suicide

How have changes in the labor market contributed to increases in suicide and drug poisoning deaths among men in the United States?

Jamie M. Carroll, Alicia Duncombe, Anna S. Mueller, and Chandra Muller


Over the last two decades in the United States, deaths from suicide and drug poisoning have risen rapidly for men without a college degree. Many have argued that changes in the U.S. labor market play a central role in these mortality patterns. In particular, the loss of good-paying blue-collar jobs has increased inequality, job insecurity, and physical and mental health problems among U.S. workers. These challenges can feed into feelings of hopelessness and despair which in turn increase vulnerability to suicide and drug poisoning deaths. 

Blue-collar jobs that once supported middle-class lifestyles among men without a college degree have become more scarce and the jobs that remain often command lower wages than they once did. But during the 1970s, when the youngest Baby Boomers were growing up, good-paying blue-collar jobs such as carpenters, mechanics, and machine operators, were plentiful. Therefore, many adolescent men growing up in the 1970s expected to hold blue-collar jobs that would support middle-class lifestyles during their adulthood.

However, these men entered early adulthood during the 1980s, when the labor market share of blue-collar jobs (that is, the percentage of blue-collar jobs) and average wages of these jobs were already steeply declining. The resulting labor market diverged: non-college educated workers dominated low-wage positions while middle-class lifestyles were reserved for those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree. 

In other words, just as these youngest male Baby Boomers entered the labor force, the labor market shifted to prevent many men without a college degree from attaining the good-paying blue-collar jobs that they had expected to fill. 

This research brief reports on a recent study1 in which the authors investigate whether thwarted occupational expectations among men contribute to suicide and drug poisoning deaths in a shifting economy. They use newly available longitudinal data that allows them to examine adolescent occupational expectations before the labor market shift took place and risks of suicide and drug poisoning mortality after that shift. 

The data come from High School & Beyond (HS&B), a large nationally representative panel survey in which high school sophomores and seniors were interviewed in 1980 and then again several times until 1992. The authors focus this analysis on men because they were more likely than women to have expected the blue-collar jobs that declined in labor market share; they are also more likely to die by suicide. The HS&B data were then linked to adult mortality records to determine who in the sample died between ages 25 and approximately 50, as well as the cause of death. Of the 11,720 men used in the analysis, approximately 60 died by suicide and 40 died by drug poisoning. (Note: for confidentiality reasons, reports of deaths are rounded to the nearest 10.)

Key Findings

  • Men who were adolescents in the 1970s and expected to work in blue-collar occupations that later declined in labor market share and economic value have increased risks of suicide and drug poisoning deaths in adulthood. See Figure. 
  • Men who took coursework in high school that prepared them for blue-collar occupations that later declined in labor market share and economic value have increased risks of drug poisoning deaths in adulthood. 
  • Men who died by drug poisoning in adulthood come from more advantaged family backgrounds – that is, they had college-educated parents and fathers who worked in professional occupations – than men who died by suicide in adulthood.
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Policy Implications

These findings have important implications for suicide prevention and mental health promotion. For example, educational training to prepare people to adapt to labor market changes may be a key, but generally overlooked, tool for suicide and drug abuse prevention. Other tools include robust welfare programs and improved unemployment benefits.

As technology increasingly makes certain sectors of the labor market obsolete, we need to prepare adolescents for the uncertainty of occupational opportunities in adulthood by training them to develop flexible skills that can be used for a wide range of future opportunities. 

In addition, for adults facing occupational declines, new skills training will not be enough to protect 

them from the risks of suicide and drug poisoning. Training programs must also include a focus on how these occupations define their identities and ideas of where they fit in the world. Expanding training programs to include this broader range of skills could serve to reduce mortality risks for those in vulnerable occupations so that all people can survive, and potentially thrive, in an ever-changing economy.


[1] Carroll, J.M., Duncombe, A., Mueller, A.S. & Muller, C. (2021). The roles of adolescent occupational expectations and preparation in adult suicide and drug poisoning deaths within a shifting labor market. Journal of Health and Social Behaviorhttps://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/N7RZBRMY49DUJJWMNHJI/full

Suggested Citation

Carroll, J.M., Duncombe, A., Mueller, A.S. & Muller, C. (2021). How have changes in the labor market contributed to increases in suicide and drug poisoning deaths among men in the United States? PRC Research Brief 7(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/22070

About the Authors

Jamie Carroll (jmcarroll@utexas.edu) is a study director at the Texas Behavioral Science and Policy Institute at the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin; Alicia Duncombe is a PhD student in sociology at UT Austin; Anna S. Mueller is Luther Dana Waterman Associate Professor of sociology at Indiana University; and Chandra Muller is a professor of sociology, Alma Cowden Madden Centennial Professor and Ashbel Smith Professor in Liberal Arts at UT Austin and a faculty scholar in the Population Research Center.


This material is based upon work supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation under grant number 2012-10-27, the National Science Foundation under grant numbers HRD 1348527, HRD 1348557, DRL 1420691, DRL 1420330, and DRL 1420572, the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education under grant numbers R305U140001 and R305U180002, the Spencer Foundation under grant numbers 201500075 and 20160116, the Alzheimer’s Association under grant SG-20717567, the National Institute on Aging under award R01AG058719-01A1, and Russell Sage Foundation under grant number 2102-30516. This research was also supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under grants numbers P2CHD042849, P2C HD041023, P2C HD047873, and 5 T32 HD007081 (Training Program in Population Studies) and from the National Institute on Aging under grant number P30AG066614 awarded to the Center on Aging and Population Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. Finally, the authors are grateful for the generous support of the High School and Beyond Midlife Follow-up project. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other funders.