Yesterday’s Thoughts

February 6, 2005

Adult Life Expectancy

Response to Nicholas Kristof’s column.

To the Editor:

Before wading in and advising Liberals how to play poker, Nicholas Kristof would be wise to learn whether a straight beats two pair. In his column, “Social Security Poker,” he has confused the terms “life expectancy” and “life span.”

He writes, “The Social Security Administration estimates that U.S. life expectancy will increase by only six years by 2075. But life spans grew by 30 years in the 20th century, and if you believe (as I do) that biotechnology will greatly raise life expectancy, then we’ll face a huge problem paying for long-lived retirees.” The life spans that grew by 30 years in the 20th century were those for newborns; life span is irrelevant to Social Security which relies on the age structure of the working and retired populations.

The Social Security Administration estimates the life expectancy of adults. Men who turned 65 in 1940 could expect to live an additional 12.7 years and women 14.7. In 1990 these figures were 15.3 years for men and 19.6 years for women. (Figures from the Social Security Administration http://www.ssa.gov/history/lifeexpect.html.)

Given that the 50 years between 1940 and 1990 saw rapid advancements in science and medicine and average increases in post retirement life expectancy of 2.6 years for men and 4.9 years for women, the Social Security Administration’s estimates of 6-years increase over the next 70 years is prudent, the promises of biotechnology not withstanding.

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