According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy in the United States is the longest ever, approaching 79 years. This was highlighted in the recent Time cover story, "This Baby Could Live to Be 142 Years Old." With very few exceptions—such as the flu pandemic of 1918, which caused the life expectancy to temporarily plummet by a dozen years—our life expectancy has continued with a positive trend line throughout our nation’s history.
During my lifetime, life expectancy has increased from 70 to almost 79. In 1960, when life expectancy was 70, full retirement age for Social Security was 65. Therefore, on average, it was necessary for Social Security benefits to be able to fund five years of retirement. Now, as life expectancy approaches 79, full retirement age has increased to 67. Hence, on average, it will now be necessary for Social Security benefits to fund 12 years of retirement.
Social Security has been labeled the "third rail of American politics." This label, going back to (at least) the Reagan era, predicts that politicians who are so bold as to propose changes in these benefits are committing political suicide. The increase in retirement age (that continues to grow from age 65 to age 67) was enacted in 1983 and signed into law by President Reagan. His landslide reelection in the following year suggests that changes to Social Security might not be as suicidal as the phrase suggests.
When I talk with college students and emerging adults, they often suggest that they do not expect to realize any Social Security benefits. They expect the system to implode long before they retire. This is unacceptable. It would be extremely selfish of our generation to bankrupt this system without finding some long-term solution.
Apart from the Social Security angle, the reality is that over the last decade, pension and retirement benefits have collapsed or have been drastically cut for many Americans. Those who carefully planned and managed their expected retirement position often had to make life-changing adjustments in order to regain that position. According to recent reports, however, many Americans have simply ceased to plan and save for retirement.
It is unreasonable to expect our youth to fund 12 years of retirement. It is time to revisit this issue and undergo serious bipartisan work to make it better. The longer life expectancy must be considered as we plan for the future stability of retirement benefits—the future financial stability of our children and grandchildren.
–Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.