How 65 became the default retirement age

By Sarah Ovaska-Few

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Image by wsmahar/iStock

For decades, 65 has been the goalpost most everyone in the labor force worked toward for retirement. But why 65? The answer isn't clear-cut — but it is an interesting story with cameos from colorful politicians ranging from the Iron Chancellor to the Kingfish.

Sixty-five is the age most commonly associated with retirement largely because it's when Social Security contributions have historically been distributed, when federal Medicare health care coverage begins, and when many private pension plans begin paying benefits.

There's also no single reason why 65 was selected as the age to begin distributing payments when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935, said Edward Berkowitz, a history professor at George Washington University who specializes in the history of Social Security.

"It was somewhat arbitrary," he said. American planners looked to examples of other social insurance programs in countries like Germany, but they were also influenced by the intense public pressure at the time to lessen the economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression, he said.

Germany was the first country to adopt a national pension program when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck — the Iron Chancellor — pushed for one in 1889.

The German system initially was intended for those 70 and older, but the starting age was later lowered to 65, according to the Social Security Administration's historians.

There was a long history of 65 being singled out, according to information provided via email by Dora Costa, the chair of the University of California—Los Angeles economics department and author of The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880—1990. In addition to the German system, public programs in states like Massachusetts, and the payments distributed to Civil War veterans and their survivors were among those that also often used 65 as a benchmark.

But one of the largest influencers was the public, which was struggling with high unemployment due to the Great Depression. There were pushes for relief by organized civic groups and by populist politicians like Louisiana's Huey Long (nicknamed "the Kingfish"), who proposed a pension for everyone above 60, according to the Social Security Administration's historians.

A compromise of sorts was settled on with 65, Costa said.

"Below that would have been too expensive to set up Social Security," Costa said. "Above that would have been politically unpopular — unemployment rates were high, so the political selling point of Social Security was to get the elderly out of the labor force."

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a North Carolina-based freelance writer.

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