The next time you hear someone say that the Social Security retirement age needs to go up because “back when Social Security was started, people weren’t expected to live much past retirement age,” first point out to them that the terminology is confusing: “life expectancy” means “life expectancy at birth.” Life expectancy at birth goes down if you die in the crib. What’s actually important, when setting the retirement age, is your life expectancy at age 65. Since we’ve made big strides on reducing child mortality, life expectancy at birth has gone way up; life expectancy at age 65 has only gone up by a little less than six years across all races and sexes, and has only gone up by a bit less than three years for black men. See the tables (with sources linked) below.

A couple other things to note:

* Suppose we’re in a recession when you’re in your late 60s. You get laid off. How likely do you think it will be that you’ll get re-hired? (Though as a friend mentioned the other night: employers may refuse to hire older folks because they know that their new employees will only be working until they hit 65; an increase in the retirement age might make employers think they can get a few more productive years out of them, thereby making age discrimination less of a problem.)

* There’s a gap in life expectancy by income, which the figures by race and sex don’t necessarily capture. (Though since race and sex affect income — women and black people are paid less — the life-expectancy numbers based only on race and sex may already capture an income effect. What we want is are models that predict life expectancy as a function of race, sex, and income, holding each constant while the other varies.)

I’ve had a book in my queue for a while, namely [book: Working Longer: The Solution to the Retirement Income Challenge], which seems to address these issues. I’ve had a visceral resistance to reading it — namely that if someone suggests I work later in life, I might suggest in response that they perform an anatomical sexual impossibility. But I’ll overcome that resistance and read it for you, out of affection.

Life expectancies, 1939-1941:
All White men White women Black men Black women
At birth: 63.62 62.81 67.29 52.26 55.56
At age 65: 77.80 77.07 78.56 77.21 78.93
Life expectancies, 2006:
All White men White women Black men Black women
At birth: 77.7 75.7 80.6 69.7 76.5
At age 65: 83.5 83.1 84.8 80.1 83.6