Obesity May Cost US Boomer Babies $1 Trillion in Lifetime Earnings

Born between 1982 and 1993, the kids of the Baby Boomers are sometimes also referred to as the Millennial generation, Generation Y, Net Generation, or Echo-Boomers.

This generation has fully embraced social networking (e.g. Facebook) and file sharing (e.g. Napster) and spends an average of 3.5 hours a day online. They have also been noted to live longer with and be more dependent on their parents while at the same time valuing flexibility and independence.

Importantly perhaps, up to one in three members of this generation in one third of the US States is now clinically obese.

As this generation enters the workforce, how will the obesity epidemic impact their economic health and expected earnings?

It may be reasonable to ask this question, as obesity will likely negatively impact their productivity and, as a result, their economic prosperity. Not only do obese individuals tend to miss more days at work but especially obese women have been shown to earn substantially lower wages (around 12% less) than their normal-weight counterparts.

This question of lifetime earning was now addressed by Shari Barkin and colleagues from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, in a paper just published in the Journal of Business Psychology.

Utilizing evidence in the existing literature, the researchers created an economic model to predict the impact of obesity on the aggregate lifetime earnings for the Millennial generation and the consequences for employers and employees.

If the assumptions for this model hold true, Millennial US women will earn an average of $956 billion less due to obesity during their lifetime, whereas Millennial men will earn an average of $43 billion less. The overall impact of obesity on the aggregate lifetime earnings of Millennial men and women is close to one trillion dollars.

The enormous disparity of this impact on lifetime earnings between men and women is largely due to the much larger wage penalties payed by obese women compared to obese men and exist despite the fact that women’s labour participation rates and earnings tend to be less than men’s.

The article highlights the urgent need for employers to address the issue of obesity in the workplace and cites positive examples where employers (IBM, General Mills, Medtronic) have launched major initiatives aimed at improving the health of their workforce.

The authors also suggest that these interventions should perhaps be tailored to the characteristics of the Millenium generation by making full use of social networking and online strategies based on chronic disease management models.

Whether or not the assumptions underlying the model are completely true or not, the study does highlight the potential impact of obesity on this generation and the substantial fallout that this can have on the economic future of the US.

Similar impacts of obesity on the economics of other countries are only to be expected.

Edmonton, Alberta

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Barkin SL, Heerman WJ, Warren MD, & Rennhoff C (2010). Millennials and the World of Work: The Impact of Obesity on Health and Productivity. Journal of business and psychology, 25 (2), 239-245 PMID: 20502510