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Measuring age the old-fashioned way

FP contributor John Shoven is getting some much-deserved attention this week for his work on age inflation. Earlier this year, Shoven wrote in Foreign Policy about why we shouldn’t fear the aging of the world’s baby boomers: The reason lies in the misleading way in which we measure age. Typically, a person’s age has been ...

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FP contributor John Shoven is getting some much-deserved attention this week for his work on age inflation. Earlier this year, Shoven wrote in Foreign Policy about why we shouldn’t fear the aging of the world’s baby boomers:

The reason lies in the misleading way in which we measure age. Typically, a person’s age has been determined by the number of years since his or her birth. We are so accustomed to measuring age this way that most of us have never given it a second thought. Thanks to the medical revolutions of the past century, however, life expectancies have been radically prolonged. Since 1960, the average Chinese person’s life span has increased by 36 years. Over roughly 40 years, South Koreans have seen their lifetimes extended by an average of 24 years, Mexicans by 17 years, and the French by nearly a decade. Given these drastic changes, our conception of what qualifies as “old” has itself become old-fashioned.

Measuring age not by years since birth, but by mortality risk has huge implications for Social Security benefits. In 1940, a 65-year-old American man could expect to live 11 more years; today, he can expect to live 17 more years. Being 65 simply isn’t what it used to be.

In a new working paper, Shoven and his co-author Gopi Shah Goda expand on this angle, producing this fascinating chart showing that if Congress had started adjusting benefits to mortality risk instead of traditional age measures in 1940, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving full Social Security benefits would be cut in half by 2050:

If Congress had enacted these changes in 2004, we’d already be looking at a 3 percentage point drop in the next few decades.

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