Being overweight can cost you dearly - both in terms of health and finances. Researchers studying 150,000 Swedish men that were obese aged 18 found they grew up to earn 16% less than their peers of a normal weight. Even people who were overweight at 18, that is, with a body-mass index from 25 to 30, saw significantly lower wages as an adult. Researchers looked at Swedish men who enlisted in compulsory military service in the 1980s and 1990s. Obese 18-year-old men will earn 16 percent less over their a lifetime than those of a normal weight, according to the study published in the research journal Demography. This is roughly the same lifetime earnings penalty as missing about three years of college education, the researchers point out.
‘Our empirical analysis provides four important results,’ the team say. ‘First, we provide the first evidence of a large adult male labor market penalty for being overweight or obese as a teenager. ‘Second, we replicate this result using data from the United States and the United Kingdom. ‘Third, we note a strikingly strong within-family relationship between body size and cognitive skills/noncognitive skills. ‘Fourth, a large part of the estimated body-size penalty reflects lower skill acquisition among overweight and obese teenagers. ‘Taken together, these results reinforce the importance of policy combating early-life obesity in order to reduce healthcare expenditures as well as poverty and inequalities later in life.
The team analyzed health and wage statistics for 150,000 Swedish men who enlisted in mandatory military service at age 18 in the 1980s and 1990s. Since obesity can be affected by factors like household income, the researchers controlled for family characteristics by only using men who had a brother also included in the study. This allowed researchers to compare heavier and thinner brothers who had the same family backgrounds, controlling for things like wealth, geography or ethnicity. Even when brothers were compared, the researchers found that obesity correlated with lower earnings. They hypothesized that the gap was due to obese teens not fully developing so-called ‘non-cognitive’ skills, like confidence and self-motivation. The ‘bullying, lower self-esteem, and discrimination by peers and teachers’ that these obese male teens experienced had a ripple effect through their future financial lives, according to the study. The researchers pointed out that this is not exclusively a Swedish problem, as they found ‘strikingly similar results using U.S. and UK data.’
The study said that it is critical for countries to introduce policies and programs to combat childhood obesity, ‘in order to reduce healthcare expenditures as well as poverty and inequalities later in life.’ ‘In sum, our results suggest that the rapid increase in childhood and adolescent obesity could have long-lasting effects on the economic growth and productivity of nations. We believe that the rationale for government intervention for these age groups is strong because children and adolescents are arguably less able to take future consequences of their actions into account. ‘Moreover, their choice of goods and physical activities is largely determined by the knowledge and preferences of parents, as well as by food supply and activities at school. ‘Policies aimed at addressing the market failure associated with childhood and adolescent overweight and obesity hold great promise, and more research on cost-effective measures is warranted.’