My Generation Is So Screwed Without Social Security Reform

I support the complete privatization of Social Security, and would favor a lot more radical plans than the Bush administration is likely to propose. Even then, I can’t imagine any sort of meaningful reform will be enacted until it is far too late and the system is on the verge of collapse.

The thing about Social Security is the more you dig in to how the government is planning for the future, the more you learn just how screwed those of us who are going to have to support the retiring baby boomers are. For example, take this unbelievable nugget reported by the New York Times (emphasis added),

Tables published by the government’s National Center for Health Statistics show that life expectancy at birth was 47.3 years in 1900, rose to 68.2 by 1950 and reached 77.3 in 2002. The latest annual report of the Social Security trustees projects that life expectancy will increase just six years in the next seven decades, to 83 in 2075. A separate set of projections, by the Census Bureau, shows more rapid growth.

Claiming that life expectancy will increase by only 6 years by 2075 is ridiculous. The history of predictions on life expectancy is one prediction after another claiming that the previous few decades increase was unprecedented and would not be able to be repeated. Since there is no indication that average life expectancy is anywhere close to the theoretical limits of human life expectancy, estimates that low-ball the increase in life expectancy are foolish.

In fact, it’s likely going to be just the opposite — most of the increase in life expectancy in the 20th century occurred in the first half of the century due to efforts that reduced infant mortality. It wasn’t until the last half of the century that medical developments started significantly improving life expectancy of those already over 65. Since we’ve made so much progress on lowering mortality in the very young, the obvious place for further research — and where it is increasingly concentrated — is on diseases that kill middle aged and older individuals.

I suspect that over the next 70 years, the increase in life expectancy for those over 65 is going to begin to accelerate as information from the human genome, stem cell research, and a wide variety of other areas of inquiry that are still in their relative infancy start to mature and provide treatments for diseases typically associated with aging.

The good news — you’re likely to have a very high life expectancy if you’re relatively young today. The bad news — you’re going to be taxed to death to pay for retirees whose life expectancy is also going to grow.


Social Security Underestimates Future Life Spans, Critics Say. Robert Pear, The New York Times, December 31, 2004.

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