AUSTIN EDITION - COL Longer life-spans pose new challenges

Let's take a moment to think about the remarkably long lives most Americans can now look forward to, and about the challenges and opportunities that will face a rapidly aging America in the 21st century. A hundred years ago, the average life expectancy at birth was only about 40 years. But children born today can reasonably expect to live nearly twice that long, and many will live to be 100 years old.

As someone who works for Social Security, I often think about the huge challenges that an aging America brings, particularly the aging of the baby boomer generation. Baby boomers are those 77 million Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964. Today, most are in their 40s. But the oldest are now 57.

Before too long, all those baby boomers will reach retirement age. Now I know it's hard to imagine a number as large as 77 million. But if you break it down a bit, it comes out to more than 10,000 people a day reaching retirement age-each and every day for nearly 20 years. That's a lot of retirees, and this doubling of older Americans will subtly, and perhaps not so subtly, change the way America lives.

It's difficult to picture just what changes will occur. More wrinkle cream sales, early-bird dinner specials and senior merchandising discounts? Fewer body piercing pagodas and MTV specials? Who knows?

What we do know is that all of these retirees will need a source of dependable income to enjoy their increasingly long lives. That's one reason why Social Security is so important. More than nine of 10 baby boomers will eventually receive a monthly Social Security retirement check, and it will provide a solid financial foundation as they make their retirement plans.


At the same time, I always tell people that Social Security will not be enough. The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit for all retired workers is about $900. That's something they will be able to count on for as long as they live. But people will need more if they want to enjoy a comfortable retirement, and if they want to have something to leave to the next generation.

That's why Social Security always has emphasized retirement planning for workers of all ages. Some of today's workers could, in fact, spend as many years in retirement as they did working. As a famous actress once observed, it is not how old you are, but how you are old. Being old with a little money is always better.

Social Security has a great little calculator at that helps people work through what they'll be getting from Social Security, and we connect to another site that helps calculate pension and savings income. So begin your financial planning early, just in case you become one of the many centenarians in the 21st century.

Gerald Nelson is the Social Security district manager in Austin.

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