Career & Jobs

American Elders Are Short-Changed 5 Years Of Healthy Retirement

America’s elders die sooner and are sicker than their counterparts in other rich nations. American elders also must work longer than their cohort abroad. These trends mean that Americans get fewer years of healthy retirement life than elders in comparable wealthy nations—five years less, in fact.

One reason for this big gap in healthy retirement is the pressure for American elders to work longer. Among major rich nations, Americans work longer than anyone except the Japanese, who retire at age 67.9 while Americans work until age 65 on average; but the Japanese live longer, so experience more healthy retirement time.

By comparison, as measured by what the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) calls “the effective retirement age,” the British retire at age 63.5, Canadians at 63.2, Germans at 61.9, and Italians even younger at 60.8. The French win this joie de vivre contest, ending their working years at age 59.9 on average (President Macron may lose his reelection bid because he talks of raising the retirement age to 70).

All of this, coupled with life expectancies, creates significant disparities in retirement life. Canada’s elders can expect to live to age 86, yielding 22.8 years of retirement. Americans, meanwhile, get among the lowest retirement times at 19.9 years on average.

It’s sad to know that America’s de facto plan for retirement is working longer and dying sooner. This inequality of retirement time is caused by the crossing of two swords: the growing inequality of retirement wealth and the growing inequality of longevity. These inequities are deeply connected. If people who die younger could retire earlier than those with longer and healthier lives, retirement time could at least be distributed more equally.

Life Expectancy Grew In Rich Nations—Except The U.S.

The World Health Organization (WHO) collects data on healthy life expectancy from birth, defined as the absence of functional limitations in everyday life. The most recent WHO data indicate that as of 2019 France, Germany, Italy, and the UK together had an average healthy life expectancy of 71.25 years—while the average American’s healthy life expectancy was just 66.1 years.

Americans’ healthy life expectancy lags behind all the other G7, NATO, and rich OECD nations. Among OECD nations, which average 70 years of healthy life expectancy, the U.S. lags 3.9 years behind. The U.S. ranks last among NATO countries, some 3.3 years behind these countries’ average healthy life expectancy of 69.4 years.

This gap has widened in recent years. Between 2012 and 2019, life expectancy increased in the four largest EU countries—Germany, France, Spain, and Italy—which saw increases of more than 1.5 years (life expectancy stagnated in the UK). During this time, Americans’ healthy life expectancy actually decreased by about nine months. The U.S. also experienced a rise in chronic, non-life-threatening conditions such as asthma, arthritis, and joint pain, all of which can curtail healthy life. These conditions are aggravated by many of the low-wage manual jobs that America’s elderly must work to survive.

It’s also important to note, averages don’t tell the full story here, and hide significant racial disparities in the U.S. African Americans, for instance, have a healthy life expectancy of just 61.1 years compared to the white average of 67 years.

US Falls Behind In Healthy Life Expectancy For 65 Year-Olds

In another worrying sign, America’s 65-year-olds are experiencing lower life expectancy than their counterparts in the four largest European nations. Once they reach 65, American elderly women can expect to live 20.8 years more while U.S. males average 18.2 years. In the United Kingdom, the elderly do slightly better, with men living 18.8 years after age 65 and women 21.1 years. Women in Germany do even better, living 21.4 years after reaching 65, while German men do marginally better with a post-65 life expectancy of 18.4 years. Here again, the French win, with elderly men and women boasting some of the world’s highest life expectancy after age 65, averaging 20 and 23.2 years, respectively.

Americans Work Longer Into Old Age

All these disparities are compounded by the fact that Americans work longer into old age. A greater share of people over 65 must work in the U.S. than in most OECD countries. The labor force participation rate of Americans aged 65-69 is over 23%—putting the U.S. 9th out of 36 OECD nations in its portion of elderly workforce participation. Why are Americans working deeper into their elderly years? Given the health issues discussed above, it’s doubtful that Americans are working longer because their health is more robust. To the contrary, because of elderly Americans’ poorer health, working longer is a sideways plan to solve the retirement crisis.

Indeed, the main reason American elders work longer is due to America’s relatively inadequate retirement benefits and income sources. The average household Social Security benefit is only a little more than $1,000 a month. At such meager levels, it’s easy to see why so many American seniors must keep working and thus miss out on years of healthy retirement life.

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