Life expectancy in the United States has been gradually increasing for decades now. The average life expectancy is now up to 78.2 years. There is a common misconception, however, that all have benefited from that increase equally. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The lower half of the economic spectrum has a much lower life expectancy than the top half.
First, though, let me explain that 78.2 life expectancy number. Every person born is expected to live to the ripe old age of 78.2. Obviously, not everyone makes it. That number takes into consideration babies that die at 1 month of age and managers that die of a heart attack at 50. A lot of the rise in the life expectancy in the United States is really just a drop in the infant mortality rates and better health related outcomes. This is as it should be, but it can cause confusion in people because your life expectancy at age 65 changes quite a bit from your life expectancy at birth.
Keep that explanation in mind when you read the Social Security Administration’s “Trends in Mortality” study. There’s a lot of cool stuff in there, but we’re interested in tables 3 and 4.
Table 3 shows that a person in the lower half economic bracket born in 1912 was expected to live to 77 on average whereas one born in 1941 is expected to live to 80. That’s almost a 4% increase. An upper half person born in 1912 was expected to live to 79 while one born in 1941 is expected to live to 86. That’s almost a 9% increase. So the lower half has experienced less than half the life expectancy increases of the upper half.
Table 4 shows the same data in a different way. It shows how many years left a person has to live at various ages broken down by top and bottom half economic brackets as well as the difference in the number of years left between the two.
The full retirement age is already scheduled to raise to 67 in a few years. There is lots of talk about raising it even further to solve minor problems that are easily fixable in other ways. This is an incredibly bad idea. If it happens, we may actually see the life expectancy of the lower economic half of the population drop as people work themselves to death.