If life expectancy today were the same as in 1935, when Social Security was enacted, the baby boomers would be one depressed lot. Fortunately, people live longer now. But the retirement age of 65 -- a relic from the pension system of Bismarck's Germany -- remains unaltered. This anachronism will loom particularly large when the baby boomers approach retirement.
A diverse set of public and private groups agrees that entitlement spending -- particularly for Social Security and Medicare -- needs to be contained. Without adjustments, those programs will self-destruct or, more likely, exert a cataclysmic impact on the federal budget early in the next century, when the baby boom generation, a huge segment of the population, reaches retirement age. Yet any discussion of the problem is immediately short-circuited and labeled as an attempt to betray an important social contract with the elderly. This is silly. There is a simple way to ease the long-term strains that would have absolutely no impact on current or soon-to-be retirees: gradually raise the age at which both Social Security and Medicare benefits are payable to more fully reflect increases in life expectancy. Phasing in the higher age over roughly a 25-year period would prevent the current over-50 set from being affected in any way. Rather, the full impact would fall on the baby boomers, who currently are in their working prime and who have ample lead time to adjust to the change.