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The Birth of the Golden Years

Medical advances in the 1950s meant that large numbers of Americans were reaching so-called “old age,” defined by Social Security as age 65 and above, a notable change from 1900 when life expectancy was 47.

March 15, 2012
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Medical advances in the 1950s meant that large numbers of Americans were reaching so-called "old age," defined by Social Security as age 65 and above, a notable change from 1900 when life expectancy was 47.

Retirement also had become an economic possibility for more Americans.

The Social Security Act, signed into law in 1935, meant that retirement no longer was exclusively self-financed. And tax changes during World War II stimulated the spread of private pension plans. By 1949, pensions were viewed in some industries as a social obligation.

In 1950, Social Security increased benefits for existing beneficiaries for the first time, and the average payment increased by 77 percent. A second cost-of-living increase of 12.5 percent meant that the average monthly benefit had almost doubled in less than three years.

Amendments to the law in 1950 allowed 10 million more workers to qualify for Social Security benefits, which were further liberalized throughout the decade, adding farmers, domestic workers and those who were self-employed.

People weren't expected, or often allowed, to work past 65. Union contracts and many large nonunion companies had a compulsory retirement age.

Advertisers began to court these retirees. For the first time, retirement was depicted as an idyllic period filled with travel and golf rather than seen as a time of illness and dependency.

Todd Henneman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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