A Little Truth

January 28, 2011

A Little Truth is the first post of what I hope are several more, identifying falsehoods in our discourse that don’t get challenged.  I hope you enjoy these brief encounters with reality, that they make you more critical thinkers and better citizens, and that you tell your friends.

So, it’s a given that people live longer than they used to and, therefore, the United States of America must raise the retirement age for Social Security to save us from ourselves.  Right?  No, wrong, although I’m sure those people who argue for increasing the retirement age will quibble with my characterization of their main argument in support of their position.  To them I say, get your own damn blog!

So, wrong?  Why?  Let’s stick with white males, only because I am one and, surprise, the life expectancy tables start with white males. A boy born in 1850 would be expected to live, on average, for 38.3 years. A boy born in 1950 would, on average, be expected to live for 67.55 years, almost 30 years longer. That’s a lot of extra years.  Hmmm.  Still wrong?  Yes.

Let’s look at how long 1850 boy, if he lived to be 50 years old, would be expected to live.  20.76 more years, all the way until 1920.  And 1950 boy in 2000, when he turns 50?  He’d be expected to live for another 28.2 years.  So over 100 years the average 50 years old’s life expectancy lengthened by less than an eight years.

To recap, at birth lives lengthened by almost 30 years over a century, while at 50 years old the same century only gave us middle-aged white guys an extra eight years.  Why the discrepancy?  That’s easy; it’s all about surviving childbirth.  When a generation lives longer lives than its predecessor generations, but its older people’s life expectancies are not significantly greater, mathematics tells us it’s all about people dying before they get older.

What does all of this have to do with the Social Security retirement age?  Soon after Social Security came into being in the mid-1930s, 60 year old men were expected to live for about 15 years when they retired.  And now, 75 years later?  About 20 years.  Not very much longer, and certainly nothing worthy of “people are living longer, so we have to raise the retirement age.”  I’m no expert on Social Security, but I do know this:  When you talk about people living longer in the context of Social Security, overall life expectancy matters not at all!  Instead, it’s about how long people will live once they receive benefits.  And the little truth is that over the past 75 years, retirees aren’t living all that much longer.

So, when you hear noise about people living longer, find out who the people are who are living longer, how much longer they’re living, and ask yourself, Does this matter?

Leave a Reply