Publisher's Perspective

In recent years, the value of statistics has declined, as politicians and business leaders bend and twist nearly every piece of data into whatever shape that suits them.


So it’s understandable that data on retirement from the Administration on Aging attract little attention, even though the numbers may have a lot to say about how you could be living in your retirement years, and possibly are living already.

On one level, the numbers contain some encouraging news. Average life expectancy continues to increase, and today’s older Americans enjoy better health and financial security than any previous generation.

However—and there’s always a however, when such reports are the topic—there remain some substantial differences among groups within that population, and in some ways the American retiree doesn’t stack up very well against those of other industrialized nations.

And, of course, this comes at a time when the Baby Boom generation’s move into retirement is just beginning to have what likely will be substantial effects on health, long-term care and pension systems, to name a few aspects of retirement. The demographics of aging in the United States continue to change dramatically, as the boomers accelerate growth in the percentage and numbers of older people and other important parameters change, the report said. For example, in 2006, an estimated 37 million people in the United States—12 percent of the population—were 65 and older. Projections forecast that by 2030, approximately 71.5 million people will be 65 and older, representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.

Here are some key observations:

Retirees are better educated than those of the past. In 1965, 24 percent of those age 65 and up had graduated from high school, and 5 percent had bachelor’s degrees. By 2007, 76 percent were high school graduates, and 19 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree. But there are differences by ethnic group, with whites having generally the most education, followed by Asians, blacks and Hispanics.

Retirees are living better than those of the past. Since 1974, the proportion of older people with incomes below the poverty line went from 15 percent to 9 percent; those categorized with low income dropped from 35 percent to 26 percent; those with high incomes increased from 18 percent to 29 percent. Again, there are differences by ethnic group, though; median net worth for households headed by whites age 65 and older was six times that of older black households.

Retirees are living longer than those of the past. People who survive to age 65 can expect to live an average of 18.7 more years and the life expectancy of those who survive to age 85 is about seven years. Life expectancy, though, is lower than in countries such as Canada, France, Sweden and Japan. The leading causes of death among people age 65 and older, incidentally, are in decreasing order: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes mellitus, and influenza and pneumonia.

One other interesting finding was that the proportion of leisure time that older Americans spent socializing and communicating—such as visiting friends or attending social events—declines by age, from 13 percent in those ages 55 to 64 to 10 percent for those 75 and over. The proportion of leisure time devoted to sports, exercise, recreation and travel also declines with age. On an average day, most Americans age 65 and older spent at least half of their leisure time watching television.

So, is that your future? Living fairly comfortably, in relatively good health although spending an increasing amount for that health. Well, the federal benefits package does generally point you in that direction. It provides a steady stream of retirement income and health insurance—both of which many private sector retirees will lack—although in a health insurance program whose costs are escalating steadily. So, that statistical profile might be a fairly accurate picture of your life ahead.

One piece of advice, though: TV isn’t worth that much of your time.