November 2, 2016

The Retirement Age for Social Security Needs to Rise to 70

Jason J. Fichtner

Former Senior Research Fellow

The next president and Congress must act to make necessary improvements to our nation’s vital Social Security programs, and one of those changes should be to gradually increase the retirement age.

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Of all the changes needed to make Social Security financially stable for current and future recipients, the one change that should be a given is raising the retirement age to 70.

This will no doubt be a blow to many for whom 67 already seems painfully far away. But the harsh reality is that Social Security wasn’t designed to finance 20 to 30 years of retirement. Today, a 65-year-old man on average will live to 84, and a 65-year-old woman to 87. And people can begin claiming benefits, albeit at a reduced benefit level, at 62.

After years of ducking the problems facing Social Security, the next president must propose ways to modernize the program, remove the disincentives to working later in life and ensure that those most vulnerable have a dignified and financially secure retirement.

The Social Security trustees have sent a clear warning that the Social Security crisis is real, is of a staggering magnitude — and is already upon us. If nothing is done, the assets in the combined Social Security trust funds will be depleted in 2034, and benefits would at that point need to be immediately cut by approximately 21% unless there is a huge payroll tax increase or a taxpayer bailout through a general revenue transfer. Enacting changes now — including a gradual increase in the retirement age and then indexing further increases to longevity — will let changes be phased in, allowing people time to plan and reducing any adverse effects.

As set forth in legislative changes made in 1983, the age at which a worker is eligible for unreduced Social Security retirement benefits has been gradually increasing from age 65 for those born in 1937 or earlier, to age 67 for those born in 1960 and later. And I do mean gradually: The full increase in the retirement age to 67 won’t occur until workers start claiming benefits in the year 2027.

Raising the retirement age could again be done gradually, similar to the 1983 reforms, increasing by two months each year starting for those born in 1960 (the threshold for the current age 67 retirement age). If we started next year, everyone 57 and older wouldn't be affected. The rest of us would have time to gradually adjust to the new retirement age. Again, the retirement age would increase by just two months for each year starting with those born in 1960.

Benefits could still begin at age 62, but at an even more reduced rate. And we might want to consider modifying the delayed retirement credits to encourage those that can continue working past age 70 an incentive to do so. For those unable to work past 62, the current minimum benefit should be adopted to ensure that no senior lives in poverty.

But just raising the retirement age alone won’t bring Social Security back to fiscal solvency.

A trust fund insolvency date almost 20 years away has lulled some into a false sense that the program’s finances are now stable. Please don’t be fooled. Social Security faces severe, urgent financial challenges that policy makers must address immediately if we are to ensure the program remains viable for future generations. The trustees estimate that the 75-year financial shortfall for the combined trust funds is $11.4 trillion in present-value terms. If we indefinitely extend past the 75-year period, the so-called “infinite horizon,” the shortfall is a whopping $32.1 trillion. For comparison, our nation’s gross domestic product is slightly over $18 trillion — and our gross national debt (not including unfunded liabilities) is already almost $20 trillion.

The trustees now estimate that to close the 75-year financial shortfall for the combined trust funds would require an immediate 2.58 percentage point increase in the Social Security payroll tax, from the current 12.4% to 14.98% of covered earnings. That’s a 21% nominal increase in the payroll tax. Alternatively, solvency could be achieved with an immediate reduction in benefits of about 16% for everyone, or near 20% if applied only to new beneficiaries after 2016. Obviously, such dramatic and immediate changes to either taxes or benefits should be avoided. These numbers only become more ominous the longer we delay.

We can’t afford to wait; doing so will only ensure that the changes necessary to shore up Social Security’s retirement and disability programs will be far larger and more difficult. Enacting changes now does not mean that the changes to benefits or revenues have to start right away or in full force. In fact, the advantage of acting now is that this will give us plenty of lead time to phase in any changes more slowly and give everyone much more advance notice of any changes.

Time is running short. The next president and Congress must act to make necessary improvements to our nation’s vital Social Security programs, and one of those changes should be to gradually increase the retirement age.