By Kali Shiloh
When the Social Security Act of 1935 established 65 as the age of retirement in the United States, Monopoly was advertised as a “sensational” game and Fred Astaire was a socko performer. Also, people said socko. The average monthly Social Security check, which started rolling out a few years later, was around $22—if you lived long enough to qualify for it. The average life expectancy at the time was 60 for men and 64 for women.
Life since then has changed—and extended—dramatically, but the expected retirement age has barely budged. Of the babies born in the United States today, more than half can expect to celebrate their 100th birthday, and these future centenarians are just the latest additions to a slow-growing but inexorable “gray tsunami” that is increasingly worrying economists, health care providers and employers. If young people today live life as their parents have, preventable medical conditions will proliferate, pressure will increase on an already jeopardized Social Security program, and a shrinking labor force will bear the burden of an entire generation of out-of-work, elderly TikTokers. We may have cracked the code on how to live longer, but we still haven’t addressed the critical question of how to manage 35 years of “extra” time.
Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and founder of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, has been studying the gift and curse of a longer life for three decades. “When we hear these negative, frightening kinds of predictions about the future, they’re all premised on the idea that nothing changes,” she says. Fortunately, change is not only possible but also the reason people in the United States are living longer in the first place. Investments in science, technology and policy to date have primarily protected young life, Carstensen says. In the 20th century, reductions in infant mortality, advances in sanitation and medicine, and the creation of child labor laws earned us the single greatest increase in life expectancy in human history. Now, she says, it’s time to focus on the other end of the age spectrum.