Bruce Bartlett

 According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans are considering an increase in the normal retirement age in order to help finance Social Security reform.  In the past, this idea has been very controversial and Democrats are, no doubt, salivating at the opportunity to slam Republicans for even thinking about raising the retirement age.  But it?s a good idea that shouldn?t fall victim to partisan politics.

Increasing life expectancy is something we all take too much for granted.  But just within the lifetime of most baby boomers such as myself, the increase has been dramatic.  And projections say that life expectancy is going to continue rising, not just here but worldwide.  Obviously, this will have massive effects on society that inevitably will require everyone to rethink their plans for work and retirement and necessitate changes in our institutions.

It may be hard to believe, but according to historian Robert W. Fogel, the life expectancy at birth was just 32 years in England in 1725.  Those of us in the ?colonies? were better off, but life expectancy here was just 50 years at that time.  Under such circumstances, the idea of retirement was absurd.  People worked until they died.  They had no other choice.

As recently as 1900, within the lifetime of many people?s parents and grandparents, the situation wasn?t any better.  According to the Census Bureau, life expectancy at birth hadn?t improved at all in the previous 200 years.  It was still about 50 years in the U.S.?48.3 years for men and 51.1 years for women.  In many relatively advanced countries it was far worse.

In 1900, life expectancy for men was less than 40 years in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary and Spain.  It was under 50 years in Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Japan.  Australia seems to have had the longest life expectancy, but even there a male could expect only 53.2 years at birth and a female would have 56.8 years.

But just a few decades later in 1950, there had been dramatic improvement everywhere.  The life expectancy for men was over 60 years in every major country except Japan, Hungary and Spain, and was close to 70 years in the Scandinavian countries.  However, in most developing countries life expectancy was still at medieval levels.  Throughout most of Africa and Asia, one was fortune to get 40 years.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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