Mark Twain said there were “lies, damned lies and statistics.” He was vindicated by Bruce Bartlett’s recent argument: The retirement age should be raised because people now live much longer than when Social Security was established. Life-expectancy is his basis of argument.
Life-expectancy in the United States was under 65 in 1935, but is in the high 70s today. Thus, Mr. Bartlett thinks the retirement age needs updating. In so arguing, he misconstrues what life-expectancy really means.
Life-expectancy is not the age people in a past era typically attained. It is a statistic calculated by adding all the ages people lived to, then dividing that by the number of people.
Thus, a population of 100 — of which 80 lived to age 70, another 10 lived to age 5, and 10 lived only six months — had a “life-expectancy” of 56.6 years.
If past life-expectancy looks low, by today’s standards, it usually is due to high infant mortality. Mr. Bartlett (as well as others who write similarly) ignores this. My great-grandparents lost five of 10 children — three to diphtheria on one February day in 1879. Their other five children lived into their 70s and 80s, but their family’s “life-expectancy” calculates to only 40.
My grandparents lost two of four children in infancy. My parents and my wife’s parents each lost a baby in the 1930s and ‘40s. Today, this is uncommon. It explains the dramatic increase in life-expectancy.
In an old cemetery you see many graves of children and young people. Excepting women who died in childbirth, most people who reached adulthood tended to live to ripe old ages. The early deaths depressed the life-expectancy number, making nonmathematical analysts think no one lived much past 40 or 50. But that is a false interpretation.
People are living longer, if they can reach old age. Mr. Bartlett cites data showing men who reach 65 can expect to live 16 more years. (19 more years for women.) In 1940, those post-65 expectancies were 11.9 and 13.4 years, for men and women. Mr. Bartlett claims these are the life-expectancies that “really matter,” as they determine how much Social Security will have to pay in benefits.
But this is incorrect, too. Of 100 people, if 90 live to age 60, and the other 10 live to 100, the age-expectancy of those who reach 65 is 35 years. To Mr. Bartlett, this would seem a big problem, but it would not be. Ninety percent would have paid taxes for years, only to die before drawing benefits.
Focusing only on life-expectancy at age 65 skews the picture. If available, the informative statistics would be “average years paid into Social Security” and “average years receiving benefits.” For that same 100 people, average years paid into the system is 40 (assuming all began working at age 20). Average years receiving benefits are only 31/2. Data like these need more study before we rush to raise the retirement age.
Mr. Bartlett also ignores the physical and mental difficulty of working to age 70. Often it cannot be done. It is absurd to think workers in physically demanding jobs — e.g., construction and most trades — can go on to age 70. Many are crippled by their 50s. Even office workers lose acuity and energy.
Businesses will find ways to drop older workers. Indeed, they do so now. I know many people in their late 50s laid off from long-time jobs who cannot find new work at the same level. Will 60-somethings be expected to work at McDonalds until they can finally draw the retirement they earned?
Even doctors and other professionals — who are self-employed and can work as long as they want — tend to realize they cannot keep punching the heavy bag much past age 65.
A good friend who was a pediatrician thought he would work indefinitely. He loved his work and made good money. But with heart trouble and other ailments, he finally stopped at age 67. (He said you can only get up in the middle of the night for sick kids so many times and he had used up his quota.)
There is a time to work and a time to stop. Those who said retirement should come at 65 knew something. We shouldn’t arbitrarily change this based on misconstrued statistics.
Potomac Falls, Va.
Mr. Zimmerman is retired from a long career in mathematics and military simulation and modeling. His weekly column, “At Large,” appears in the Atlantic Highlands Herald.