Monday, January 12, 2009

Can people delay Social Security retirement? In the past, they did.

One of the most prominent reforms for Social Security is to increase the retirement age, which would require people to work longer to get the same level of benefits they do today. For instance, until 2000 the full retirement age was 65, since then it's moved to 66, and by the early 2020s it will increase further to 67. In a way this makes sense, both since Social Security is insolvent and since people are living longer.

One counterargument for raising the retirement age is that people can't work longer, due to health reasons or the types of jobs available in the economy. While there's no way to prove this one way or the other, there's one interesting piece of evidence that most people don't about: in the past, most people delayed claiming Social Security far longer than people do today.

The chart below is drawn from SSA data (available here). It shows that in 2005 the average age at which people claimed retirement benefits was around 63.7 year. The most common age of claiming is 62, but some people claim later. However, the chart also shows that in the past, most people waited several years longer to claim benefits. In the 1950s, for instance, the typical person did not claim benefits until age 68. The reasons for this are primarily that you could not collect retirement benefits at all until age 65 and that there was a stricter retirement earnings test that limited or eliminated benefits for retirees who continued to work.

But the point is that the 1950s were in many ways a harder time for someone to delay retirement. Life expectancies and health were worse than today. The typical 65 year old in 1955 could expect to live around 14.9 extra years, while today a typical 65 year old can expect to live an additional 18.8 years. Moreover, jobs in the 1950s were far more physically demanding than those today – think steel mills, mines, and so forth.

While the fact that people in the 1950s delayed retirement is no guarantee that Americans today can, it's certainly evidence in that direction.

P.S. Note the steep decline in claiming ages beginning in the mid-1950s for women and early 1960s for men. This was when early retirement at age 62 first became available.

1 comment:

Frank said...

One counterargument for raising the retirement age is that people can't work longer, due to health reasons or the types of jobs available in the economy. While there's no way to prove this one way or the other, there's one interesting piece of evidence that most people don't about: in the past, most people delayed claiming Social Security far longer than people do today.