In America, our view of “typical retirement age” and what constitutes heading into “later life” could use a serious facelift. Right now, the expected age for a worker to retire is 65-years-old. In fact, as workers approach this de facto retirement birthday, employers may start subtly (or overtly) steering their employees towards greener pastures, or, in more real terms, going out to pasture.
Social Security reinforces this idea about the age at which we’re supposed to retire. At the earliest, a person can begin drawing benefits at age 62. The Social Security Administration’s current definition of “full retirement age” is between 65 and 67, depending on the year you were born.
What these realities suggest is that when you ring in your 65th birthday, you transition from a contributing member of society to a financial burden. The more the “65-plus” group swells, the more legislators worry about health care and pension costs. It is a fact that by the end of the century, the “old-age dependency ratio,” which tracks this relationship, will triple. Some commentators point to an impending “silver tsunami,” a wave of Americans turning 65 or older in the next decade or so, which will bankrupt Social Security and ultimately the government. (Fire and brimstone, anyone?)
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For many reasons, this is a “sky is falling” fear. It’s not based in reality. Right now, there are about 150 million people in the workforce. They pay taxes. They pay into Social Security. In the decade or so before the silver tsunami hits and in its wake, there will still be approximately the same number of workers. Money may be flowing out in the form of Social Security benefits, but it will be constantly and consistently replenished. It will be okay.
Putting politics aside, perhaps the most important message in our current retirement scheme is that hitting 65 doesn’t just mean that you should be stepping away from work. It means you’re old. Period.
If you just laughed, so did I when I first delved deep into this issue. Why are we laughing? Because we know there is so much more to the story than this distillation and stereotype. In today’s world, it is laughable to consider a 65-year-old “old.”
Take longevity, for instance. These days, the average lifespan for people is much longer than it was way back in 1935 when Social Security started. In fact, if you look at average lifespans from the Social Security Administration’s own website, it will tell you that men who turn 65 this year are expected to live to age 84.3, and women are expected to live to age 86.6.
And, as the website reminds us, these are just averages. About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95. In 1935, the average lifespan was 61.7 years. Meaning most folks weren’t expected to even make it to full retirement age. Interesting, but that is a discussion for another time.
The question on my mind is why, if almost three decades of longevity have been tacked on to Americans’ lives since Social Security was implemented, haven’t we changed our ideas about the typical retirement age and what constitutes “old” age?
I can’t solve that riddle, but I can offer a solution to the problem of people being labeled as “old” at 65. It’s time for everyone to acknowledge that a new stage of life, between working age and being old, exists. And this stage of life can be just as rich as any other stage.
From the Oxford English Dictionary, “old” is defined as “having lived for a long time.” It illustrates the sense with an accompanying phrase, “the old man lay propped up on cushions.” I don’t know about you, but I work with and know a lot of retirees. Some are in their 60’s, some in their 70’s, and some in their 80’s and 90’s. My experience is that these folks aren’t lounging around propped up on cushions. They are out living life in a way that makes them happy. They are vibrant and healthy. They aren’t retiring and withdrawing from society. They are actively involved in their communities and economies. Quite simply, they are not “old” by any stretch.
We would be much better served if our society began to acknowledge this new stage of life between full-time work and true old age. Not only would this vision be much closer to tapping the truth of modern American life, it would help everyone make the most of our longer life spans. The result? Happier retirement years and happier retirees.