WILLIAMS: The curse of longevity

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935 guaranteeing retirement pensions to all Americans over the age of 65. Sounds like a good deal except for the fact that the average American life expectancy back in 1935 was 61.7 years.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was as farsighted as any politician in America, which is to say not at all. Everything was supposed to remain the same so the plan would work perfectly with plenty of young workers paying for the few and relatively short-lived federal pensions of the old.

As time marched on, access to food and health care, coupled with the automation of manual labor granted longevity to even to the poorest in America. In 2010, the average life span in the U.S. was 78.7 years.

Interestingly enough, there were more centenarians in 2010 (53,000) then there were Social Security recipients in 1937, the first year benefits were distributed. Those first recipients received a total of $1.278 million that year. The Class of 2010 centenarians had received no less than $18 billion at the time of the 2010 census. That is $18 billion with a B.

There is absolutely no way that FDR thought Social Security would pay 53,364 people a monthly stipend for more than 35 years. Less than 1 percent of the population was 65 or older in 1940; by 2011 that figure exceeded 18 percent. In numeric terms, that works out to 222,488 people in 1940 versus more than 56 million in 2011.

The life span of the average American in 1935 was already unprecedented in the history of the world. In 1900, the average life span was 31 years, which was the norm for every advanced civilization at its peak. Hobbes may have been describing the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short,” but that just as much describes life in general until the last half of the 20th century.

I know many of you are thinking, “Armstrong’s writing another ‘Social Security is going to fail’ column. Ho hum.” But no, that point is obvious and has been written to death.

No institution could prepare itself for the unprecedented extension of life we have seen in the past 100 years. Humans were not designed to live as long as we have. Our longevity has not only fundamentally changed how our governments and institutions must deal with us, it has changed how we relate to others and ourselves.

Humans, like all creatures, are inherently selfish. We view the world narcissistically — our lives are a movie starring us. When we help others, almost all of us do so not because it makes someone else feel good, but because it makes us feel good. Listen to testimonials of why people help others, “I feel I want I like I, I, I.”

We delude ourselves into thinking we are good, moral, unselfish people, but we are lying to ourselves for the benefit of others. Longevity has put this selfishness on display for all but the blind to see.

Once upon a time, children became adults once they hit puberty, if not earlier. By adults, I mean folks thrust into positions of responsibility for themselves and their families. With no birth control, they had children at a younger age and had more of them; in the 1800s, American women averaged seven to 10 children. You needed those children though, because most families worked farms. More children meant more hands during the harvest.

With maybe 40 years to make a mark in life, individual timelines dilated. In the scientific community, this would be a “fast-paced life.” More time and energy are devoted to maturing quickly and having babies.

A short life meant death was more accepted and that our legacy was our children. The young were meant to take over for the old as generations passed. This allowed for a constant renewal of society as the vibrancy of youth was perpetually taking charge.

An 80-year life span means that we began to live “slow-paced lives.” Although our biological maturation processes have not changed, our mental/social maturation has. Without the rush to become responsible and procreate, we can spend more time “finding ourselves.” The longer we spend as an autonomous unit free from responsibility to others and family, the more selfish we become and the harder it is to adapt once we get married and/or try to have a family. Even though the Internet makes us more connected, we have never been more alone or depressed.

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