“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long?”
-The Beach Boys
Have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment? It was a study on delayed gratification where young children were placed in a room with a marshmallow in front of them. They were told that if they could wait fifteen minutes before eating the marshmallow, they could get a second treat. After the instructions, the adult would leave the room and the child was left alone with the marshmallow. While some children followed the instructions, only about one-third of the children were able to wait fifteen minutes without eating the marshmallow. Many of us might have heard of this experiment and have formulated some sort of opinion about these impatient children, but I have a curveball to throw into the mix. We are all sitting at the table with a marshmallow in front of us and a promise that if we are patient and wait the time, there will hopefully be a rewarding outcome. If you haven’t guessed it yet, that marshmallow is retirement. Researching the average amount of time people wait before retiring led me to an interesting observation.
Life expectancy and average retirement age in the U.S. have been moving in opposite directions. Since 1955, the average retirement age has gone from 65.71 to 612. Personally, 61 seems low, especially considering that the full retirement age for Social Security is between 66 or 67 depending on when you were born, and that most people aren’t eligible for Medicare till age 65. I have a theory as to why it is currently 61, but I will get to that in a moment. In the meantime, the average life expectancy in the US since 1955 has gone from 69.23 to 78.93. The average retirement age and average life expectancy are diverging further and further. In 1955, the average US citizen would get to enjoy only about 3.6 years of retirement. Today, that number is 17.9 years.
Source: see footnotes
In 1961, there was a change to the minimum age someone could start drawing Social Security. The earliest someone could receive money for the minimum Social Security benefit went from age 65 to 62 in 1961. According to the Social Security Amendment of 19614, the change in age was to help unemployed older workers who were not able to find a job due to their age or physical condition. The Social Security program felt that individuals had expectations of receiving benefits when they were “too old to work” and that they should receive a degree of protection for conditions beyond their control as they near retirement age. Now for my theory. I believe that the change in the eligibility age for minimum Social Security had a large effect on the average age of retirement. In 1960, before the amendment, the average age of retirement was 65.71, and in 1970 just 10 years after the change, the average age of retirement dropped to 63.41. To put that into perspective, most of the change in the average retirement age over a 64 year analysis period happened in the 1960s. Coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.
Most of this commentary has been observation and theory. To make a point, here are two takeaways from all of this. First, we should appreciate the times we live in. Retirement has changed. It changed from almost being non-existent to becoming another stage in life that people look forward to and can enjoy. I don’t know the reasons or arguments as to why it changed, how it changed, or if it should have changed at all, but it is something to appreciate. Many people are motivated to work their tails off to be able to enjoy this stage in life where they can have more freedom to do the things they want. The second take-away is that as a society, we have become more patient at waiting for the marshmallow as we have grown. If my theory is correct that the minimum age to draw from Social Security affects the average age of retirement, it means that as a society, we have learned to wait. On the flip side, the instant our time to wait is up, we enjoy our treat. Many aspects of life are about discipline and delayed gratification. Think about it. Whether it is taking the time to exercise and eat healthy to achieve good health or saving for the future rather than spending in the moment, or putting in the years to earn a job promotion. We learn that many times the wait is worth it.
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1Gendell, M., & Siegel, J. S. (1996). Trends in Retirement Age in the United States, 1955-1993, by Sex and Race. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 51B(3). doi: 10.1093/geronb/51b.3.s132
2 Newport, F. (2019, September 4). Snapshot: Average American Predicts Retirement Age of 66. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/234302/snapshot-americans-project-average-retirement-age.aspx.
3 Roser, M. (2013, May 23). Life Expectancy. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy.
4 Cohen, W., & Mitchell, W. (1961). Social Security Amendments of 1961: Summary and Legislative History. Bulletin, pp. 3–10.