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Social Security and the calculators of our lives
Every day, in every way, see advice about Social Security. It must be the most frequently asked question of all time. The NY Times ran a Money column this past weekend – probably the thousandth time they’ve run the exact same piece of advice. Wait to take Social Security until you’re 70. Pay a bit of attention to the nearly 400 comments that wrestle the writer down – pretty much saying to take it when you’re eligible. And that’s so interesting when you look at the data the writer included -- with a deep sigh -- at the end: "Of the 1.4 million men and nearly 1.3 million women who began collecting benefits in 2012, about 1 percent of the men and nearly 2 percent of women were at least 70." Considering that virtually no one heeds it, no wonder the advice must be repeated, ad nauseum. In fact, five days earlier, the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the exact same advice! And AARP ran the same advice on October 24. Ditto for USA Today on October 13.
Percentages are intriguing – interpreting them is a challenge. So let’s get a few numbers on the table under the light. It turns out that 50% of Americans begin taking Social Security at 62. And they do so, regardless of their economic status. If they find a job within 12 months of starting, they can pay it back and claim later -- can't confirm how many actually do that. But now let's consider that only 25% of those age 62+ are 'participating' in the labor force, the average age for 'retirement' (from something) is said to be 62, and the fact that the older unemployed have a tough time finding a job, especially at the pay they had. Yet if you ask the question: “How many people age 62+ are on Social Security?” what do you get? With Google, the answer is a long list of advice links explaining the benefit of delaying taking it. Bing and Yahoo offer more explanation – but none of them answers the question straightaway.
People must be using the calculators – and ignoring them. Social Security’s calculator page has disclaimers (money may run out by 2033!) and a convenient life expectancy calculator so that you more easily guess how long you will need the money. Some calculators are easier on you than others – MetLife’s is short and pleasant – okay, you will have a long life. Living to 100 – that’s a l-o-n-g calculator to find out if you will have a long life, and it’s not worth it after page 2. Some that want to help you calculate the value of an annuity, are, uh, very brief. By the way, trying a few of these out, all have different results with the same input. To help educate the worried, one site categorized calculators into groups by type.
So what’s behind all of this Social Security delay advice? Back to the beginning -- let’s be a bit cynical for a change of pace! You are a writer at National Pick-A-Paper. Your publication needs advertisers (insurance and annuities are just a few that are related to life expectancy). You need to show advertisers that you have content that is relevant to the product they want to advertise. Does it need to be accurate? Compelling? Persuasive? Nope – it just needs to be relevant to the topic. And invite a bit of controversy (like those smart NY Times comments that refuted the article's advice.) In fact, just getting your attention is difficult. Whose attention do advertisers actually want? If they are willing to advertise at all, they want to appeal to those 50-plus or over age 65 that read their content. Nobody else does, apparently. Younger folks must be getting the latest developments from -- where? Not Twitter. Pinterest or splintered across 3 pages of social sites? Likely little Social Security calculator craze has crossed their phone.