Millennials assume Social Security benefits will disappear before they reach retirement. But they are dead wrong.
Social Security is like a Rorschach test. Some look into the federal retirement program’s future and see nothing but doom and gloom. Others see a solid institution that just needs a few tweaks.
The Social Security Administration on Wednesday released its annual trustees’ report, estimating that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money in 2034. But don’t expect this to settle any debates.
While older Americans can’t imagine a world without Social Security, most millennials have become fatalistic — they assume the benefit will disappear before they reach retirement. Only 6 percent of them expect current benefits to be there when they hit 67 years old — the full benefit age for those born in 1960 or later — and 51 percent expect the program to become extinct, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
Experts disagree about almost everything on Social Security. They largely concur that, in this case, millennials are dead wrong. Under the current estimate, 2034 is the year when Social Security can no longer pay full benefits (unless the government steps in and does something about it). But the program should still be able to pay three-quarters of benefits at that time and for decades afterward, backed by a steady stream of payroll taxes from future generations.
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Future administrations could move to repeal the 81-year-old Social Security Act and spend that money on something else. But that will probably continue to amount to political suicide down the line.
Among older Americans, 53 percent of married couples get more than half their income from the program. For the unmarried, it’s even more critical: Some 74 percent get more than half their income, and 47 percent get more than 90 percent of their income from the program.
Cutting benefits is also wildly unpopular. Two-thirds of all Americans, and 61 percent of millennials, favored either keeping benefits the same or expanding them, according to the Pew survey.
The topic can spark warfare among retirement experts. Look, for example, at the open disagreement among the authors of last year’s surprise best-seller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.”
Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor and economist, wrote in the latest edition of the book: “Radical change in our Social Security system is inevitable for the simple reason that the system is broke — indeed, in worse fiscal shape than Detroit’s pensions when that city declared bankruptcy.”
But in the same chapter, co-author Paul Solman dismissed those concerns, accusing Kotlikoff of “irresponsible hyperbole, animus and undue pessimism.”
One thing they agree on, however. Addressing young people, Solman wrote: “You will get yours — or at the very least, you’ll get most of it.”