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Most Retirees Misjudge Life Expectancy

Many Americans are underestimating just how long they might live, a failing that’s putting their retirement finances at risk.

John Keith /

A new report from the Society of Actuaries finds that more than half of retirees and pre-retirees misjudge their life expectancy. Fully four in 10 underestimate the figure by five or more years.

The upshot: “Underestimation of life expectancy, together with having too short a planning horizon, can result in inadequate provision for retirement needs,” the report states. “Even when individuals or couples do make a reasonably good estimate of remaining lifetime for people their age, far too few of them provide adequately for the consequences of out­living average life expectancy.”

The report begins by noting how life spans continue to increase. In the past 50 years alone, life expectancy for newborn American males improved by an average of almost two years each decade, to 75.7 years in 2010 from 66.6 years in 1960. For females, the average increase was about 1.5 years per decade, to 80.8 years in 2010 from 73.1 years in 1960.

A male who reaches age 65 in average health has a 40% chance of living to age 85, the report notes; a female who reaches age 65 has more than a 50% chance of reaching 85.

The good news: The majority of surveyed retirees and pre-retirees believe they will live into their 80s. The not-so-good news: persistent gaps in knowledge about life expectancy. These gaps include, the report notes, “a failure to fully understand the variability in life expectancy, and to appreciate that about half of the people will outlive the average life expectancy of their age cohort.”

For instance:

  • 54% of retirees do not believe they will live as long as the average person their age and sex.
  • 31% of retirees cite a life expectancy that is longer than the population average
  • 46% of pre-retirees think they will live below the population average
  • 41% of pre-retirees believe they will live longer than an average person of their age and sex.

Ideally, the society notes, “Improving the general public’s understanding of longevity and what it means for financial planning should be a high priority for all those committed to ensuring a secure retirement for American seniors.”


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    • This is such a great resource that you are pronidivg and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of pronidivg a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

    • What a perfect name! Remember the still (less firentec part) and that your only deadlines are now those that your own interests or priorities establish. You are in total control.

    • Hi Bill, another good post.But there are some tignhs that a slightly deceiving about some of the facts. Yes the average life expectancy in the 1930s was 62 but that was mainly because so many died in childhood that it drove the average much lower. My grandfather died at 77, my father at 78, and I expect I will expire around then also. People who lived to 50 back then were expected to die sometime in their 70s. Not so much different than today.When we read that America’s highest rate of entrepreneurial activity was among those 55 to 64 years of age we should not be thinking of Bill Gates or KFC but instead of selling tignhs at craft fairs to earn a little more income. This increased activity is a result of more time in our senior years.As to retirees taking jobs away from others because they work in their senior years that is probably a very small reason contributor to unemployment rates today. Most of it is due to automation and jobs leaving for lower cost off-shore wages. I know the company I used to work for hired over 60,000 engineers like myself; all of those jobs have disappeared since I retired.The one statistic I was surprised at was that only 2.1% of the U.S. population is above 65% but I guess that number will be increasing starting now as we baby boomers officially reach that number. I know I hit it last months and I am at the head of the baby boomer herd.

    • According to the US government, once a US male gets to 65 years old, his life expectancy is to age 83. That’s higher than the life expectancy at birth (76 years), because it excludes all the males who died before age 65. see

About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.