WASHINGTON -- The retirement age, already scheduled to rise from 65 to 67, may have to be increased further because so many Baby Boomers could live into old age that it would overwhelm the Social Security system, the new Social Security commissioner said yesterday.
"When Social Security was put into place, people were dying at younger ages," Commissioner Shirley Sears Chater said in an interview with Knight-Ridder. "With all the changes that were made in lifestyle, it may be that we examine extending the retirement age."
The average life expectancy was 61.7 years when Social Security was created in 1935, compared with 75.4 years in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 1983, Congress voted to gradually raise the Social Security retirement age from age 65 to 67 for people born from 1938 to 1960. The increase in the retirement age will be phased in gradually from 2000 to 2027.
Some analysts say further increases will be necessary, predicting that there won't be enough workers paying Social Security taxes to support Baby Boomers when they retire. The Baby Boom generation refers to the huge group of people born from 1946 to 1964.
Ms. Chater, who was sworn in as Social Security commissioner on Oct. 8 after serving as president of Texas Woman's University in Denton, said there are no imminent plans to raise the retirement age. But she said she would work closely with Congress to make any changes needed to keep the entitlement program sound.
Her willingness to discuss raising the retirement age makes her somewhat unusual for a public official here. Many shy away from the topic, fearing a political backlash.
But Ms. Chater's comments won support from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group for the elderly that is usually a vocal critic of benefit changes.
"I think the time has come to take a look at the issue," said Martha McSteen, the organization's president. "People are indeed able to contribute to society longer."
Ms. McSteen, who headed the Social Security Administration from 1983 to 1986, said she would support a review by a bipartisan panel of experts on raising the retirement age for everyone except the disabled.
Social Security estimates that the number of Americans 65 and older will double to 67 million by the time the last wave of the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age, according to agency spokesman Phil Gambino.
However, a new study by scholars at Yale and Duke universities suggests that Social Security is grossly underestimating how long today's health-conscious Americans will live.
Baby Boomers will live far longer than today's retirees because so many have cut cholesterol in their diet, lowered their blood pressure and quit smoking, according to Burton H. Singer of Yale's School of Medicine.
Healthier lifestyles coupled with medical advances against diseases mean there could be up to 50 million more Americans age 65 and over in 2040 than Social Security expects, according to Singer and Kenneth G. Manton, research director at Duke's School for Demographic Studies.
The scholars warned that the Social Security system will go bankrupt if changes are not made to take into account increased longevity.
Robert J. Myers, who was chief actuary of the Social Security Administration from 1947 to 1970, agreed that the retirement age would have to be raised if Baby Boomers live longer.
"If mortality improves greatly, there's problems for Social Security," said Mr. Myers, who is 81.
But he said it need not bankrupt the system.
"The system is not set in concrete," Mr. Myers said. "If people live longer, then they don't retire at 65 but at 75. Congress would have to delay the retirement age, as they did in 1983."
Under current law, people can still opt for early retirement at age 62. However, their Social Security benefits, now reduced up to 20 percent, would be cut by up to 30 percent for early retirement in the next century, Mr. Gambino said.