How old is old? Is 80 the new 65?

Most of us have heard talk about the Baby Boomers and how they will impact the U.S. population in the next few decades.  The Boomers are the large group of people (76 million) who were born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964.   The oldest members of the cohort have just started turning 65 in the past year, and they are starting to become eligible for many benefits that are provided to the “elderly.”  But more and more, it feels strange to categorize these individuals as “elderly.”  The words elderly and senior conjure up the notion of someone far more frail and feeble than the many vibrant, active people age 65 and older with whom a lot of us interact on a daily basis.  According to the American Community Survey, 1 in 4 Americans age 65 to 74 are still in the labor force, and many of the others are retirees who still actively volunteer or provide care for grandchildren or even their own parents.  These are folks who run in marathons and go back to school.  So why are we calling them elderly?

The first national old-age social safety net program began in 1889 in Germany under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.  The initial retirement age for that program was set at 70 while the average life expectancy is said to have been about 50 years, meaning that most people would not live long enough to receive benefits during old-age.  This cutoff set a precedent as other nations began establishing old-age social insurance programs over the next few decades.  By the time the U.S. Social Security Act became law on August 14, 1935, there were already 30 state-run old-age pension programs in operation in the United States, and roughly half of them used 65 as the retirement age.  The Committee on Economic Security proposed 65 as the federal retirement age because of the precedent set by other programs and because actuarial studies showed that an age cutoff of 65 would produce a manageable system.  Since the dawn of these programs, the official retirement age has not changed much, even though longevity has been steadily increasing since Bismarck’s time.

From 1900 to 1930, while many of the social insurance programs were being introduced, the average life span of Americans increased by 10 years, but the standard retirement age remained the same.  When Congress set the federal retirement age at 65 there were already millions of Americans who could expect to receive benefits for many years.  The table below shows figures for 1900, right at the start of the longevity boom, and 1940, around when the first older Americans started receiving Social Security benefits.  You can see that over the 40 year span, Americans were surviving to age 65 at increasing rates, living longer after reaching age 65, and the elderly were growing as a proportion of the U.S. population.

Percent of people who survived to age 65

Average years of life remaining after age 65

Percent of population age 65 and older

1900

41%

11.9

4.1%

1940

60%

12.8

6.9%

2007

84%

18.6

12.5%

Since 1940, we’ve seen even more substantial increases in longevity.  In 2007, 84% of people born in 1942 had survived to age 65.  And we expect them to live another 18.6 years after that on average.  If I updated the federal retirement age to reflect the 1940 values in the table above — to what age do 60% of people survive? at what age is the remaining life expectancy 12.8 years? 6.9% of the population is what age and older?  — here’s what I would come up with:

1) In 2007, 60% of people survived to age 78.1.

2) In 2007, the average years of life remaining after age 73.1 was 12.8.

3) In 2007, 6.9% of the population was age 74 and older.

This update shows that people who are currently in their mid- to late-70s have about the same life expectancy as people in their mid-60s did in 1940.  Yet in our society we are still categorizing people as elderly when they reach that younger age.  You can be a full member of AARP at age 50, you can get a senior discount on AMC movie tickets at age 60, people 62 and over get 15% off Amtrak tickets, at 65 you become eligible for Medicare, and the age for full retirement under Social Security is currently 66.  The idea that old-age begins in one’s mid-60s came about in the late 1890s and has not budged, even while reality has shifted dramatically.

So why are we still calling 65 year olds “elderly?”  I just don’t know.