A Brief History of Social Security
Leaving work to enter a period of leisure is a relatively modern concept largely resulting from longer life spans and the rise of technology.
Living beyond one's productive, working years is a recent development in human history. Formal programs offering "social insurance" for the elderly were only proposed when people started, in greater numbers, to live beyond their ability to work effectively. Until the 1840s, the U.S. was primarily an agricultural society in which the majority of people lived in rural areas. Extended families took financial responsibility for older members. But over the next five decades, technology advanced and the lives of workers changed dramatically—and life spans began to rise. Machines set the pace of work. Industrial output consistently outpaced agricultural output. With better sanitation and health care, life spans increased a full 10 years in just the three decades between 1900 and 1930. By 1920, for the first time in the nation's history, more people lived in cities than on farms, fraying the support system of the extended family. The Great Depression made older Americans' work situations even more challenging—over half of the country's elderly couldn't support themselves. On August 14, 1935, recognizing the need for federal assistance, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.
A Long Life in Perspective
Because of high infant mortality rates in the U.S., historical average life expectancy figures can be misleading—the estimated average life span in 1850 was about age 40, for example. However, even in the late 1700s, many of those who lived to age 50 or older could expect to reach at least age 70, well beyond their prime working years.*
*Life expectancy data gathered prior to 1900 were based on incomplete and narrow samplings of the American population.
Sources: Social Security Administration, Life Tables for the United States Social Security Area 1900–2100. Historical Background and Development of Social Security; Retirement History Study, 1972; Adult Mortality in America Before 1900, Clayne L. Pope (University of Chicago Press, 1992); United States Census Bureau, Historical Statistics of the United States.
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