Life expectancy--how long a person of a given generation can be expected to live--enters into a lot of decisions we make, but we often screw up our estimates. Some of the mistakes are relevant to individual planning while others are relevant to our society's political decisions.
You have heard this truism repeated endlessly: "The average American can today expect to live perhaps dozens more years in retirement than did the previous generation, and many retirees today will receive retirement benefits for decades longer than those who entered the Social Security system in the 1930's." But this assertion is simply wrong, and it is a dangerous mistake to make.
It might be your mutual fund company appealing for greater individual retirement savings. Or it might be your Senator making a misguided evaluation of Social Security benefits. The fallacious argument always goes something like this: Americans born in the year 1900 could expect to live about 49 years. Post-war baby boomers of the late 1940's will live on average to their late 60's, and babies born today have a life expectancy of about 79 years. Therefore, we now need to save much more and to delay retirements in order to be fair to the next generation and be true to the original aims of the Social Security system. After all, life expectancy has increased by 30 years. The truth is that there may be good reasons to reform social security, work longer, and save more, but increased longevity isn't one of them.
The reality is that the average 1946-born baby boomer retiring this year can expect to live about 18 or 19 years. Compare that to his or her grandparents who retired at age 65 in the 1960's and could expect to live about 15 years, and you see the proper comparison. The correct evaluation involves life expectancy at age 65, not at birth! The truth, surprising to many, is that the average increase in life expectancy for a 65-year-old is only about four years.
The fallacy arises from the fact that life expectancy is measured from birth, but years in retirement is measured from about age 65. Reductions in infant and child mortality have been dramatic during the 20th century, but 65-year-olds today are not strikingly healthier or longer-living than 65-year-olds of the previous generation or two. If life were being extended for decades there would be lots of 115-year-old Americans running around, but there aren't any at all.
These errors about life extension and life expectancy in retirement are so seductive that I have seen them not only in politics but in economics, and even in a speech by an Ivy League president. It is true there will soon be many more people in the very, very tiny minority who live to 100, a "striking" but irrelevant increase. It is wonderful that many fewer Americans have heart attacks in their 50's (due to blood pressure and cholesterol medications), but this is not producing a large extension of adult lifespan in old age. In fact, if you think about people you know or knew in your parents' or grandparents' generation, you'll see that it has long been true that if a couple is in good health in their late 60's, then there is a good chance that at least one of them would live to their 80's or 90's. But have you ever met a 105-year-old man?
There are many excellent reasons to keep working beyond age 65--health reasons, economic reasons, and national security reasons. My own scientific research on aging and longevity--with an 8-decade monitoring of pathways to long life reported in The Longevity Project--confirms that staying productive is a key element of long-term health and happiness. But the truth is that most healthy adults today will live only a few years longer than their parents, unless there is some very unexpected medical breakthrough. The irony is that it probably doesn't have to be this way.
The great benefit to society--the dramatic drop in infant and child morbidity and mortality--has been due mostly to low-cost vaccines and public health improvements.
There's the rub. For half a century now, since the days when President John Kennedy invigorated the President's Council on Physical Fitness and led the way with 50-mile hikes, we have known that there are major lifestyle changes that could reduce medical costs while increasing adult life expectancy significantly. We know what needs to be done but we're very confused about how to make it happen. With an obese, sedentary, poorly-nourished population--and millions of smokers, alcoholics, drug abusers, reckless drivers, and neglected children--we don't have to worry that the average American will live extra dozens of years in retirement. The costs to everyone's pocketbooks and the serious threats to our aging population are not coming from increasing longevity. With a clearer view of the facts, we can better focus on the solutions.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: There are self-quizzes and scales in my latest book to see if you are on a healthy life trajectory. See: The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. NY: Hudson Street Press. To read the Introduction (free), go to: http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/
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