CLOSE

Why is the Retirement Age 65?

In the early 1880s, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany had a problem. Marxist unrest was spreading across Europe and some of his own countrymen were calling for socialist reforms. To take the wind out of their sails and stave off more radical policies, Bismarck concocted a first-of-its-kind social insurance program wherein the national government would contribute to the pensions of nonworking older Germans.

Along with German Emperor William the First, Bismarck announced the idea in 1881, and the pair made their case to the Reichstag, or German Parliament, that  “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”*

According to the historians at the American Social Security Administration, the usual explanation for that magic number of 65 is that, at the time the plan was created, that happened to be Bismarck’s own age. The story doesn’t hold up, though. Germany initially chose 70 as its retirement age, and didn’t lower it to 65 until long after Bismarck was dead. The choice for the age of eligibility was actually more of a shrewd, and maybe a little cynical, cost-saving measure: it closely matched the average German life expectancy at the time.

Even though his plan was to flank the Marxists, Bismarck (pictured) still drew criticism for the old-age pensions, and the far-right politician was labeled a socialist. The same charge was slapped on President Franklin Roosevelt when he imported the idea to the U.S. decades later. The Committee on Economic Security, which launched the American Social Security system in 1935, selected 65 as the retirement age, but the SSA says that federal government wasn’t simply following Germany’s lead. Their choice was, like the Germans’, pragmatic. Roughly half of the existing private and state-run old-age pension systems, as well as the federal Railroad Retirement System, were using 65 as their retirement age, and the other half were using 70. It was practical for the federal plan to sync up with one half or the other, and the government’s actuarial studies suggested that starting the pensions at age 65 would allow for a system that could easily be sustained with moderate payroll taxes.

That sustainability wouldn’t last, though. In the 1980s, the SSA saw that changes in the number of people in the workforce and in retirement would require reforms to the plan. Congress has since had to make the occasional adjustment to Social Security withholding taxes and the age of eligibility. Currently, the retirement age for full benefits depends on the year a person was born. Meanwhile, the Germans have had to make adjustments to their own historic system, proposing a gradual increase of the official retirement age to 67 over the next few years.

* Just a few years later, Bismarck and William also passed an Imperial insurance order — known in German as the Reichsversicherungsverordnung — which mandated certain workers to pay premiums to health insurance funds.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios