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Stub Out That Cigarette, Lady

Something startling has been happening to life expectancy in many advanced nations. Although women's mortality rates fell far faster than men's through most of the last century, the trend reversed in recent decades as female gains in longevity slowed sharply.

From 1990 to 2000, for example, U.S. female life expectancy at birth and at 65 rose by just 0.7 and 0.3 years, respectively, while males posted increases of 2.3 and 1.2 years. The slowdown in female gains has big implications for programs, such as Social Security, that depend on projections of longevity. In 2000, life expectancy at 65 was 81.3 years for men and 84.2 for women.

The key question is: What's causing the shift? In a recent study, University of Colorado sociologist Fred C. Pampel weighs two theories.

The first stresses women's changed economic role and status. In this view, which has been challenged by many researchers, women's slower longevity gains are an unfortunate byproduct of their surge into the labor force -- and their exposure to the risky behaviors and workplace anxieties that formerly afflicted mainly male workers.

The second theory stresses differences in smoking trends among men and women. In the U.S., notes Pampel, smoking became widespread among men much earlier than among women, and the drop in male usage since the 1960s has been far sharper.

To determine how much tobacco use is affecting life-expectancy trends, Pampel analyzes changes in male and female mortality rates in 21 developed countries from 1975 to 1995. In 14 nations, the female edge in longevity either continued to grow or leveled off. In the other seven, including the U.S., it narrowed.

Pampel attributes these differences to the fact that the nations studied are at different stages in the cigarette-smoking cycle. His data indicate that smoking in all the countries was first adopted by men and only later spread to women. The upshot is that women's life expectancy vis-à-vis men's during most of the 20th century benefited from rising male smoking mortality. After women got the habit, however, rising female smoking deaths pared their edge.

The U.S. is now at the next stage in the cycle, in which a drop in male smoking results in lower male mortality -- even as female smoking deaths stay high. Indeed, men's lung cancer rates have begun to fall but not women's. Significantly, female mortality in all the nations studied is still improving faster than male mortality if you don't count smoking deaths.

Pampel concludes that different stages of male and female smoking trends fully explain the recent narrowing of the mortality gap. But it may well prove temporary. The continuing female advantage in nonsmoking mortality and recent declines in female smoking suggest that gains in women's longevity will eventually outpace male gains again. In the rarefied world of economic theory, success depends principally on a person's own efforts and talents. In the real world, of course, luck often plays a large role in determining how one does.

This is underscored by a recent study in The American Economic Review on the effects on finalists' careers of a leading international musical competition: Belgium's famous Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition.

In the study, authors Victor A. Ginsburgh of the Université Libre de Bruxelles and Jan C. van Ours of Tilburg University in the Netherlands estimate how judges' rankings of the 12 finalists in each of 11 piano competitions held from 1952 to 1991 influenced the finalists' subsequent success. The measures of success were the presence of LPs and CDs in large Belgian, British, and French record catalogs as well as the opinions of music critics.

The authors found that the judges' ratings had a big impact on how well the contestants fared in later years. However, the study also showed that those ratings did not depend simply on talent. In fact, the order in which the musicians performed, which was assigned randomly, had a critical impact on the rankings: Those who performed later in an evening or in the competition tended to be ranked significantly higher.

The results indicate that judges' opinions affect economic success, even when they are influenced by random factors unrelated to talent. And they demonstrate that, besides ability, it pays to have Lady Luck on your side. Although many male workers, particularly those who are less skilled, took a beating in the 1970s and '80s, conventional wisdom is that things turned around in the '90s. Indeed, by the end of the decade, male unemployment had fallen to a near-record low.

The problem, report Chinhui Juhn of the University of Houston and Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel of the University of Chicago, is that unemployment rates alone don't reflect how prime-aged males are doing in the labor market. They find that jobless rates fell sharply in the 1990s mainly because more men stopped looking for work and thus weren't counted as unemployed.

While men lost jobs less frequently in the '90s, those who did tended to remain out of a job longer. The economists estimate that some 40% of the growth in men no longer in the labor force reflected a rising number claiming to be ill or disabled -- a change that may reflect an easing of eligibility standards for disability benefits in the mid-1980s. And though the real wages of low-skilled men finally rose in the last half of the '90s for the first time since the early 1970s, those increases apparently were too small to stem the rise in such men leaving the labor force.

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