Did you know that our conception of “typical retirement age” was shaped over 100 years ago? In 1905, physician William Osler proclaimed the most productive working years were between 25 and 40 and called for those age 60 and older to leave work. Later came the signing of the Social Security Act (SSA) by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, which set in stone the age we have now come to associate with retirement — 65.
But times have changed.
When the SSA became law, the average life expectancy was only 58 for men and 62 for women. Today, those numbers have skyrocketed, thanks to improvements in medicine, health education and our living environments. According to the Social Security Administration, men who turn 65 this year are expected to live to age 84.3; women to age 86.6.
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About a quarter of 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and 1 out of 10 will live beyond age 95. It’s not uncommon for me to see people living another three decades after they retire.
Based on those stats, I’m making my own proclamation: 65 is the new 45.
Right now, pension benefits usually start around age 62. And Social Security? 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.
You can, however, choose to delay benefits until you’re 70 years young. There is some strategy involved, so it’s important to think carefully before deciding when to start taking Social Security.
If you listen to the message underlying our current retirement scheme, you’d no doubt get the feeling that 65 is old. Period.
Did you just laugh out loud? I did because it’s laughable that we still depend on an age-defined life plan that was formed nearly 100 years ago. In the mid-1930s and Roosevelt’s world, this definition of old age worked, perhaps. But today, a 65-year-old isn’t “old.” Not at all.
Yet we all still expect workers to retire at about 65 years old. As workers approach this de facto retirement birthday, employers may start subtly or overtly steering these employees toward greener pastures — or pushing them out to pasture.
What this expectation suggests is that when you ring in your 65th birthday, you transition from a contributing member of society to a financial burden.
Lawmakers perpetuate this myth. The more the “65-plus” group swells, the more legislators worry about health care and pension costs. It is true that by the end of the century, the “old-age dependency ratio,” which tracks this relationship, will triple. This demographic trend has led some commentators to warn of an impending “silver tsunami” — a wave of Americans turning 65 or older in the next decade that will bankrupt Social Security and ultimately the government.
This fear is 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 OK.
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Putting politics aside, there is still a question looming on my mind: 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?
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.
I am a huge advocate for retiring early — if you want to. But retiring doesn’t equal “old.” 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.”
These days, more people than ever are entering what I call the Gray Zone of retirement — a phase when they’re no longer working full time, but they are working in some capacity. Some are in their 60s, some in their 70s, and some in their 80s and 90s. Think scaling back hours at the office, or using those years of expertise as a consultant or professor. These folks may also find satisfaction as volunteers at a nonprofit. Indeed, they are not lying around “propped up on cushions.”
Think of Judi Dench, who has gotten more acclaim for her acting since she turned 60 (with seven Oscar nominations, to be exact). Or consider Grandma Moses, who didn’t start painting until she was 76. Pathologist James Parkinson identified Parkinson’s disease when he was 62. And then there’s Colonel Sanders. Kentucky Fried Chicken wasn’t created as a brand until he was in his 60s.
Every day I meet retirees who are living life in a way that makes them happy. They are vibrant and healthy. They aren’t withdrawn from society. They are actively involved in their communities and economies. Quite simply, they are not “old” by any stretch.
Shouldn’t we all begin to acknowledge this new stage of life, the one between full-time work and true old age? This vision is much closer to the truth of modern American life and would help everyone make the most out of our longer life spans.
Wes Moss has been the host of “Money Matters” on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB in Atlanta for more than seven years now, and he does a live show from 9-11 a.m. Sundays. He is the chief investment strategist for Atlanta-based Capital Investment Advisors. For more information, go to wesmoss.com.
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