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Why the 'Right' Retirement Age Doesn't Actually Exist

In the midst of the Great Depression, the passage of the Social Security Act established a national retirement age of 65 as the standard, guaranteeing that older workers could retire and receive crucial benefits for the first time in U.S. history.


The average life expectancy in 1935, however, was just 58 for men and 62 for women. Only a little more than half of the nation’s men were expected to live to see 65, according to a document from the Social Security Administration’s archives.



The age of 65 was chosen not because it was the optimal time for people to stop working, but because, as labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci puts it, it was “cheap.”


“There was a lot of opposition to a national retirement plan. Setting the age at 65, when life expectancy was a lot lower than it is today, was a political decision to get the Social Security legislation through,” she says.


Push to raise the Social Security retirement age


The average life expectancy has grown significantly in the years since the landmark social reform was created, and so has the program. Over 50 million retirees and their dependents receive benefits as of 2023, and they tend to collect them for much longer than the founders of Social Security anticipated — often for decades.


Due in large part to this swelling population of older people, the trust fund that pays for Social Security was barreling toward insolvency in 1983. That's when Congress voted to incrementally raise the full retirement age to 67 over 33 years for workers born after 1959.


Now, with record numbers of Americans expected to turn 65 over the next few years, Social Security is approaching another funding crisis. If lawmakers do not pass new reforms in the next decade, economists estimate there will be a universal 23% Social Security benefits cut.


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