WASHINGTON - Americans turning 65 this year can expect to live, on average, until they are 83, 4 1/2 years longer than the typical 65-year-old could expect in 1940. And government actuaries predict that American life spans will just keep growing.
This demographic trend - by 2040, the average 65-year-old will live to about 85 - has major financial implications for Social Security and major political implications for the lawmakers trying to overhaul the system.
Policy experts across the political spectrum, who agree on little else, have told Congress in recent weeks that any effort to improve Social Security's long-term finances should somehow deal with this jump in life expectancy - by adjusting benefits, raising the retirement age, increasing taxes or creating new incentives to work longer.
Not only are Americans living longer, these experts say, but most are also retiring earlier, and these demographic pressures will be heightened by the sheer size of the baby boom generation - 78 million strong - which will begin to retire in substantial numbers over the next five years.
Major committees in the House and Senate, struggling to produce Social Security legislation this summer, are beginning to confront the longevity issue. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, the chairman of the Finance Committee, says the retirement age will be addressed in the solvency plan he hopes to develop with his fellow party members, and his Republican counterparts in the House are holding hearings on the issue Tuesday.
"We've got to deal with reality," said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.
But the politics are treacherous, all the more so because Republicans are dealing with it alone. Democrats have refused to engage in discussions over Social Security's finances until President Bush withdraws his proposal to create private investment accounts in the program.
The most direct way to deal with the financial strain of greater longevity is simply to raise the retirement age, which stands at 65 years and 6 months and will gradually rise under current law to 67 for people born in 1960 and later. But of all the options to shore up Social Security's finances, that ranks as one of the most unpopular, pollsters say. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll this year, nearly eight out of 10 respondents said they would oppose raising the age when people are eligible for Social Security benefits.
Political strategists say this issue is viewed very differently by policy experts, who may see nothing wrong with working longer, and Americans with jobs that may be uninteresting, stressful or physically demanding, who are often eager to retire and doubtful of their employment prospects in their mid- to late 60s.
"In Washington, the focus is on the demographic reality that people live longer, and most of the people who are having this conversation wouldn't mind working well into their 70s and 80s," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. "But out in the country, most working people don't look forward to working forever."
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, agreed: "Forty might be the new 30, but they don't necessarily believe that 70 is the new 65."
Lawmakers in both parties have acknowledged that many people not only want to but also need to retire at 62 or 65. Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, recently reflected, "I know my father, in terms of his plumbing activities, was pretty - the phrase, I guess, would be pretty used up by the time he was 65." Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat, a committee member, said, "I represent a lot of people doing some pretty hard labor out there on those farms."
As a result, many analysts say any proposal to deal with increased life expectancy would probably include some protections for low-income workers in physically taxing fields. There are other potential inequities associated with raising the retirement age: on average, women live longer than men; whites live longer than blacks; the rich live longer than the poor.
Another political hurdle is the AARP, the lobby for older Americans, which points out that a major increase in the retirement age is under way as a result of the last significant overhaul of Social Security, in 1983. The normal retirement age, as the Social Security Administration calls it, is to rise by about two months a year until it reaches 67 in 2027.
Workers can take earlier retirement at 62, as many do, but their benefit checks are reduced as a result - 20 percent or more every month for the rest of their lives, depending on how early they retire.
The change in the past 60 years is striking: The average retirement age in 1940 was 68. As recently as 1965, about two-thirds of workers did not begin drawing Social Security benefits until they were 65 or older. Now, more than half retire at 62 or younger, and three-quarters receive their first benefit checks before they are 65.