The Social Security retirement age: Who’s really living longer?

president john adams

Second President of the United States John Adams lived to age 90, longer than all but two U.S. Presidents.

In 1983, the so-called “Reagan Reforms” made some big changes to Social Security including eliminating the survivors benefits for college students, boosting the payroll tax, and raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.  As a result, anyone born after 1960 must now wait until age 67 to receive their full Social Security retirement benefits.

But now some conservative thought-leaders and wealthy CEOs are again championing lifting the retirement age, this time to 70. Their argument probably sounds familiar to anyone who remembers the 1983 reforms: as people live longer, the retirement age should adjust upward. It sounds reasonable to people who have white collar jobs working in air-conditioned offices – but for millions of working Americans, the reality is much different.

One of the most common arguments in favor of raising the retirement age is that average life expectancy has shot up since the inception of Social Security, from age 60 in 1930 to nearly 79 today. Don’t be misled. The change in overall life expectancy mostly reflects lower infant mortality, not longer lifespans for adults.

In 1939, infant mortality rates were extremely high, but once age 65 the average American could expect to live another 13.4 years, or to age 78. Today, better health care and fewer infant deaths means overall life expectancy has gone up. But life expectancy after age 65 – a more accurate way to predict how long people are really living in retirement – hasn’t changed nearly as much.

As of 2008, the average American who makes it to age 65 could expect to live 19.6 years. That’s just 6 years longer than in 1939, and less than 2 years longer than in 1979 – and even that number overgeneralizes, because it ignores other factors that affect life expectancy, including gender, race, and income. A Social Security Administration study found income inequality plays a big role in life expectancy. For workers in the top half of the earnings distribution, average life expectancy is 86.5, but for those in the bottom half it’s just 81 — a gap of more than 5 years that continues to grow.

ave life expectancy at 65

Race is another important factor for life expectancy at age 65. The most recent data show black men reaching age 65 have an average life expectancy of just 81, three and-a-half years less than the average for the total U.S. population. Total life expectancy for African Americans is 74.5, while it is 78.8 for white Americans.

American workers that are living longer are, on average, better educated, more affluent, and white. Further raising the retirement age will undoubtedly have a profoundly negative impact on millions of Americans, primarily those with less education, lower earnings, and racial minorities.

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Posted in A Fair Deal at Work, Retirement Security, Social Security


  1. tom boyer says:

    please explain your statement: “the change in overall life expectancy mostly reflects lower infant mortality, not longer lifespans for adults.”

    • Hi Tom, thanks for asking. Here’s a different way to explain it: An infant born today will likely live a longer life than one born 78 years ago (when Social Security began), but a 65-year-old person living today will likely live only a little bit longer than his/her counterpart, 78 years ago. That’s because infant mortality is much improved, but senior mortality (relatively speaking) hasn’t improved as much.

      • Colin Gibson says:

        I always think of this example: if you have a population of 5, four of whom live to be 100, and one of whom dies at birth, average life expectancy is 80. If infant mortality goes down to 0%, average life expectancy grows from 80 to 100, but people aren’t necessarily living longer after retirement.

        • Great example – thanks!

          • tom boyer says:

            What I didn’t know was the mathematics behind the terminology “life expectancy”. It wasn’t obvious to me that it included all ages of all live-born people in the population pool. I’m also presuming it includes all races and native Americans (?).

          • Tom, thanks for asking the question in the first place – I think our original post needed the clarification. Overall life expectancy (incorporating different races, genders, ethnicity, etc.) as well as life expectancy for those various groups of people, is available from a number of sources including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Census.

  2. Damien Long says:

    This article should look at the life expectancy after one starts to contribute to social security not the life expectancy after 65.

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