Getting fat in the post-industrial society

Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell asked in his 1976 book, The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society, “ So, what will life be like in this post-industrial society America is entering?”. He posited that American society would be transformed from a game against “fabricated nature” to one that pitted persons against each other in the pursuit of informational advantages. At the time he also rightly predicted that in a services economy rising levels of educational attainment would lead to delaying marriage , higher rates of divorce and smaller family sizes.

What Bell could not have foreseen was the full effect that this evolving society, based on information and technology, would have on America’s and the world’s waistline. Today, mounting evidence suggests that the very technologies that have improved our standard of living continue to play an integral part in the rising rates of obesity. The service economy has produced a sedentary way of life; people spend the majority of their day hunched over in a chair glued to a computer monitor, a significant part of their evening watching a TV screen and all the while their meal sizes continue to increase. According to the new research conducted by the Milken Institute, there exists a clear link between national levels of capital investment in Information Communication Technology (ICT) and obesity rates. In “Waistlines of the World”: The Effect of Information Communication Technology on Obesity” released in August 2012, the Milken Institute found that a 10% increase in ICT investment, as a share ofgross capital formation, increases the obesity rate by 1.4% on average.

Over the last 30 years, the rate of worldwide obesity has more than doubled according to the Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet published by the World Health Organization. Obesity, defined as excessive fat accumulation that may impair health, is clearly a major global socio-economic problem, yet it is especially preeminent in North America. A new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimated that nearly 50% of American’s could be considered obese by the year 2030. The report, “F as In Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012” projects that if obesity rates continue to climb, a total of 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60%. At these rates, the medical costs associated with treating obesity-related illnesses are projected to climb from $48 billion to $66 billion per year in the United States and result in a staggering $580 billion per year in lost productivity.

Correcting this ‘growing’ American trend requires individuals, employers and governments to create a society, which incentivises healthy and active lifestyles. As”Waistlines of the World” found many employers are already taken actions to reduce employee rates of obesity. Companies such as Safeway, Dow Chemical and General Mills, recognize that helping reduce the waistline of workers also helps their bottom lines. However, employers are only one part of the equation, to get people moving the Milken Institute recommends:

• Government’s invest in and promote activity transportation infrastructure;
• Public health promotion agencies improve health literacy;
• Communities build innovative programs at the local level; and
• Strong network development among health practitioners, health information agencies and the community.

Amidst the battle of the bulge, Economic Development Agencies can play an important role in helping communities build the innovative programs needed to connect businesses with public health agencies and best practices. Agencies are already providing programming focused on enhancing the productivity and performance of local firms. For example, the Calgary Economic Development (CED) agency has collaborated with Productivity Alberta and the University of Alberta to design a program that provides employers with best practices related to employee engagement. Not to single out CED in particular, but what is preventing CED from developing a program to aid businesses in reducing worker obesity rates? In fact, agencies are at their very best when their programs are mutually beneficial to both the business and the community.

Life in the post-industrial society does not need to be sedentary. A way of life that is active and healthy requires major changes to the way in which the American work day is organized. For these changes to occur workers must take primary responsibility for their lifestyle choices, including weight, while employers and local Economic Development Agencies can help by providing incentives and support structures to lower obesity rates.