The curse of longevity

Armstrong Williams | 11/14/2013, 4:41 p.m.
The Social Security Act was passed in 1935 guaranteeing retirement pensions to all Americans over the age of 65.
Armstrong Williams

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935 guaranteeing retirement pensions to all Americans over the age of 65. Sounds like a good deal—except for the fact that the average American life expectancy back in ’35 was 61.7 years.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration were as farsighted as any politician in America, meaning not at all. Everything was supposed to remain the same so their plan would work perfectly: get the young and poor to pay for the federal pensions of the old and wealthy.

As time marched on, access to food and health care, as well as the automation of labor, granted longevity to even the poorest in America. In 2010, the average lifespan was 78.7 years. The number of centenarians in the U.S. in 2010 was over 53,000.

Interestingly enough, there were more centenarians in 2010 than there were Social Security recipients in 1937, the first year benefits were distributed. Those first recipients received a total of $1.278 million in 1937. The class of 2010 centenarians had received no less than $18 billion at the time of the 2010 census. That is $18 billion, with a “B.”

There is absolutely no way that FDR thought Social Security would pay 53,364 people a monthly stipend for over 35 years. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population was 65 or older in 1940, and by 2011, that figure exceeded 18 percent. To give those percentages a number, there were 222,488 people 65 or older in 1940 versus over 56 million in 2011.

The lifespan of the average American in 1935 was already unprecedented in the history of the world. In 1900, the average lifespan was 31 years, which was the norm for every advanced civilization at its peak. Thomas Hobbes may have been describing the “state of nature” when he said life was “nasty, brutish and short,” but it just as adequately describes life in civilization until the last half of the 20th century.

I know many of you are thinking, “Armstrong’s writing another ‘Social Security is going to fail’ column. Ho hum.” But no, that point is obvious and has been written to death. No institution could prepare itself for the unprecedented extension of life we have seen in the past 100 years. Humans were not designed to live as long as we have. Our longevity has not only fundamentally changed how our governments and institutions must deal with us, but it has also changed how we relate to others and ourselves.

Humans, like all creatures, are inherently selfish. We view the world narcissistically; our lives are movies starring us. When we help others, many of us do so not because it makes someone else feel good, but because it makes us feel good. Listen to testimonials of why people help others: “I feel … I want … I like … I, I, I.”

We delude ourselves into thinking we are good, moral, unselfish people, but we are lying to ourselves for the benefit of others. Longevity has put this selfishness on display for all but the blind to see.