Should the Retirement Age Be Raised?

Social Security’s retirement age should not be increased for anyone on the verge of retirement, but there’s a good case for doing so over coming decades, as the Baby Boomers retire and the population ages.

In 1950, the average retiree claimed Social Security benefits at age 68.5 and lived to around 76. Today, a typical retiree claims benefits at 63 and will live an additional two decades. Americans today live almost one-third of their adult lives in retirement, supported by an increasing tax burden on their kids and grandkids. This isn’t simply unfair to future generations. It is also a waste of human talent.

Are there some people who can’t work longer? Of course. And for them, early retirement or disability benefits remain an option. But it would be strange in today’s service economy if Americans, who work mostly in offices, could not work as long as prior generations who toiled in mines, mills and farms.

Indeed, our longer lives are also healthier lives. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, among individuals ages 65-74 the share describing themselves as in fair or poor health dropped from 25.1 percent in 1983 to 18.5 percent in 2007. Overall, 75 percent of individuals over 65 report being in good, very good or excellent health.

It’s easy to scare people--for instance, President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform would increase the retirement age to 69. But this would apply only to people who haven’t even been born yet and at retirement would live on average to age 88--almost 10 years longer than they did when Social Security started in the 1930s.

It is true that life expectancies have risen faster for high earners than for low-income Americans. This is why almost every reform plan that raises the retirement age also makes Social Security more progressive, by boosting benefits for low earners while trimming them for the rich.

One option is to let the retirement age rise to 67 as scheduled, then increase it in future years as life spans rise. If life expectancies increase quickly, then the retirement age will follow; if life spans stay constant, the retirement age won’t need to increase further. By itself, this would fix nearly one-quarter of Social Security’s deficit.

Mathematically, we can’t fix the entire entitlement deficit by raising taxes. And Medicare is far more likely to require tax increases than Social Security. So it only makes sense to reduce costs where we can. Increasing the retirement age is a reasonable response to longer lives.

Andrew Biggs is a resident scholar at AEI.

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