Take the Long View

Jonathan Clements

MOST OF US WILL enjoy wonderfully long lives. For those born in 2000, the average life expectancy at birth was age 80 for men and 84 for women. That’s a vast improvement since 1900, when life expectancy was age 52 for men and 58 for women.

The bad news: While men can now expect to live 28 years longer and women 26 years longer, the bulk of the improvement—20 years—came in the first half of the 20th century.

Indeed, the Social Security Administration projects that, for men born in 2100, life expectancy will be just seven years longer than it was in 2000, while women’s life expectancy will be just six years longer. Medical advances could change that, of course, but it seems the biggest improvements in life expectancy are now behind us. Maybe our great-great-grandchildren won’t be regularly living to 100.

But there’s also good news: The longer we live, the longer we can expect to live. When today’s 65-year-olds were born in 1950, the life expectancy was age 72 for men and age 78 for women. But those figures include all the unlucky individuals who never made it to age 65.

Among those still alive today at age 65, the life expectancy is 84 for men and 87 for women. Moreover, these are just medians. Half of all folks will live longer. Among today’s 65-year-olds, roughly 25% will live to at least age 90 and 10% to at least age 95. With that long life comes two key issues. First, we need to figure out what will keep us happily employed for four decades and perhaps longer. One career may not be enough. Second, we need to pay for a retirement of uncertain length, but which might last 20 or 30 years.

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