NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Entitled to Leisure?

September 19, 2011

Seniors spend an ever-increasing number of years in retirement, during which taxpayers finance a large fraction of their incomes and medical expenses.  What is little-discussed is that the growing length of retirement for men in part reflects a decline in the number of years spent working, says Christopher J. Conover, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Since 1900, male life expectancy at age 20 has risen by 14 years, yet working-life expectancy is currently lower than it was when Theodore Roosevelt was first elected president.
  • At the start of the last century, a 20-year-old man could expect to live an additional 42 years, during which he could expect to work 38 years; the average period of retirement was thus relatively short.
  • By 2004, life expectancy for a typical 20-year-old man had climbed to 56 years, yet his working-life expectancy was still 38 years!
  • The expected duration of retirement thus rose to 18 years.
  • Another way to look at this is to consider that in 1900, a man surviving to age 20 could expect to work 90 percent of his remaining life; by 2004, that share was less than 65 percent.

Women have also experienced gains in life expectancy, but their working-life expectancies have taken a very different course from their male counterparts.

  • In 1940, the average woman at age 20 could expect to be actively working in paid employment for only 12 years -- less than 25 percent of her remaining years of life.
  • This was 28 years fewer than the comparable number for men.
  • By 2004, this male-female difference had decreased to only five years.

These metrics are far from perfect, but so long as a sizable fraction of retirement spending is tax-financed, two fundamental questions underlie debates over "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare.  First, what fraction of retirement spending should be bankrolled by taxpayers in the first place?  Second, for those who do obtain taxpayer-financed support, how long should retirement be?

Source: Christopher J. Conover, "Entitled to Leisure?" American Enterprise Institute, September 13, 2011.

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