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Retirement planning: 1960s vs. now

by Alliance America
May 19, 2023


Throughout the 20th century, the concept of retirement planning has undergone significant changes, adapting to evolving societal norms, economic conditions and advancements in health care.

Between 1960 and today, the nature of retirement underwent a significant transformation. Longer life expectancy, the shift from pensions to defined contribution plans, changing societal expectations and attitudes about employment have all contributed to this evolution.

In 1960, retirement was seen as a brief period of leisure following a lifetime of work. These days, retirement has become a just new phase of life, often lasting as long as a person's working years and filled with opportunities for personal and community engagement.

As we look to the future, it's clear that retirement will continue to evolve. With the rise of flexible work arrangements, an aging population and ongoing economic shifts, what retirement will look like in another 60 years is anyone's guess.

But one thing is certain: Retirement is no longer just about the gold watch traditionally bestowed by an employer to salute decades of service. It's about thriving in the golden years of the decades ahead for today’s typical retiree.

Retirement in 1960

In 1960, retirement planning was a relatively novel concept for many. The Social Security Act of 1935 had provided a safety net for older citizens, but the cultural shift toward accepting retirement as a regular life stage was still in progress. Most people retired at the age of 65, as defined by Social Security, and the average life expectancy was around 70, meaning retirement typically lasted five years or less.

While Social Security provided some income, it was often insufficient to maintain one's pre-retirement lifestyle. Fewer than half of all workers had access to employer-sponsored pension plans, and personal savings were the primary source of retirement income for many.

The financial picture for retirees in 1960 was quite different from what it is today, marked by less security and fewer resources. Here are some examples:

Social Security:

The Social Security Act, established in 1935, was a primary source of income for many retired individuals in the 1960s. However, the benefits it provided were often inadequate to provide the same kind of lifestyles people enjoyed during their working years, and it was primarily designed to provide a basic safety net rather than a comfortable retirement income plan.

Pension plans:

Another significant income source for some retirees was employer-sponsored pension plans. But it’s important to note that in 1960, fewer than half of all workers had access to such plans. Those who did were fortunate, as these defined benefit plans guaranteed a specific amount of income in retirement based on salary and years of service. However, many workers, particularly those in lower-income jobs, had no such security.

Personal savings:

With Social Security benefits limited and pension plans not universally available, personal savings were a critical component of retirement income for many people. However, the concept of long-term saving for retirement was not as ingrained as it is today, and many individuals found themselves ill-prepared financially when they reached retirement age.

Housing costs:

Many retirees in the 1960s owned their homes outright, providing them with a degree of financial stability. However, they still had to contend with property taxes, maintenance costs and the potential need for accessibility modifications as they aged.

Indeed, the financial picture for retirees in 1960 was mixed. While Social Security benefits and, for some, pension plans provided some income, many retirees had to rely on personal savings and face significant health care and housing costs. The landscape was marked by insufficient safety nets, leaving many retirees financially vulnerable.

For those who could afford to retire, this period was often seen as a time of relaxation and leisure. With more time on their hands, retirees could spend time with family, pursue hobbies or travel. However, opportunities for engagement in the community or continued learning were limited.

Health care costs:

stethoscope on table with graph

Medicare, the government program that provides health care coverage for older Americans, was not established until 1965. This meant that retirees in 1960 had to cover most, if not all, of their health care costs, often depleting their savings and causing financial stress.

Over the past several decades, significant advancements in health care and medical technology have contributed to substantial increases in human longevity. This transformation has been particularly remarkable when comparing the health care landscape and life expectancy rates of 1960 to today.

In 1960, the average life expectancy in the United States was approximately 70 years. This was a significant increase from the beginning of the 20th century, thanks in large part to advancements in sanitation, the development of antibiotics and the widespread availability of vaccines against diseases like polio and measles.

However, in 1960, health care was still relatively primitive by today's standards. Many of today's routine medical treatments and preventative measures, such as widespread screening for cancer and heart disease, were not yet in common practice. Meanwhile, smoking in the 1960s was widely accepted and normalized, and while there was some understanding of the importance of a balanced diet, the connection between diet and chronic diseases was not as widely recognized or understood. Additionally, many diseases that are treatable today were often fatal at that time. For example, while some forms of cancer could be treated, options were limited, and survival rates were much lower than today.

Notably, the Medicare program, which provides health care coverage for Americans age 65 and older, was not established until 1965. This meant that many older Americans struggled to afford health care, and a serious illness could easily lead to financial ruin.

Medicare was designed to address the fact that nearly half of Americans over the age of 65 had no health insurance. This lack of coverage often led to delayed or inadequate medical treatment and substantial out-of-pocket costs for older adults. By providing health care coverage to this population, Medicare has played a significant role in improving health outcomes and contributing to increased longevity.

One of the most direct ways Medicare has improved longevity is by increasing access to health care services. Before Medicare, many older adults could not afford or were denied health insurance due to age or pre-existing conditions. With the introduction of Medicare, virtually all Americans 65 and older gained access to health insurance. This coverage allows them to seek preventative, primary and specialized health care services that they may not have been able to afford otherwise.

In 2006, Medicare was expanded to include prescription drug coverage (Medicare Part D), making medications more affordable for beneficiaries. Given the crucial role of medication in treating and managing a wide range of conditions, this expansion has likely contributed to improved health outcomes and increased longevity.

Medicare has increased access to medical care, improved the management of chronic conditions and made preventative services and necessary treatments more affordable. These factors combined have contributed to improved health and increased life expectancy among older Americans. Medicare's role in improving longevity underscores the profound impact of health policy on public health.

Longevity and health care today

Fast forward to today, and the landscape of health care and longevity has dramatically changed. The average life expectancy in the United States is now approximately 78 years, and many people live well into their 80s and 90s.

This increase in longevity is largely due to tremendous advancements in health care. Diseases that were often fatal in 1960, such as many types of cancer and heart disease, are now much more treatable thanks to new drugs, surgical techniques and early detection methods. Preventative medicine and wellness have become central focuses in health care, leading to early detection and better management of conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Furthermore, advancements in medical technology have revolutionized health care. Imaging technology, minimally invasive surgical techniques, telemedicine and personalized medicine based on genetic testing are just a few examples of the innovations that have improved health care outcomes and contributed to increased longevity.

The role of public health initiatives, such as anti-smoking campaigns and efforts to promote healthier diets and exercise, should also not be overlooked. These have contributed to a decrease in many lifestyle-related diseases and conditions.

While challenges remain, particularly in the areas of health care access and affordability, the progress made over the past several decades has significantly improved health outcomes and extended life expectancy. This progress not only changes the way we live but also impacts other aspects of society, such as retirement planning and health care policy.

Retirement nowadays

one hand typing on typewriter with transition to other hand on laptop keyboard

Fast forward to 2023, and the landscape of retirement had changed considerably. While life expectancy has increased, many Americans of retirement age have chosen to remain in the workforce. This shift is partly due to the changing nature of work, with fewer physically demanding jobs and more opportunities for continued employment in later life.

Financially, the picture for retirees in current times has been mixed. While Social Security and Medicare provided a safety net, the traditional pension had largely disappeared, replaced by defined contribution plans like 401(k)s. This shift put more responsibility on individuals to save and plan for their retirement. Furthermore, the Great Recession of 2008 had impacted many retirement savings, leading some to delay retirement.

The introduction and subsequent popularity of 401(k) plans significantly altered the American retirement landscape. They offered greater control and potentially higher returns, but they also introduced more risk and required more personal responsibility. The shift to 401(k) plans marked a major turning point in retirement planning, leading to the more self-directed approach that is common today.

The 401(k) plan is a relatively recent innovation in the history of retirement planning. Named after a section of the Internal Revenue Code, the 401(k) plan came into existence with the Revenue Act of 1978. However, it was not until the early 1980s that 401(k) plans began to gain popularity.

The first 401(k) savings plan was offered to employees by the company Johnson & Johnson in 1982. The adoption of these plans accelerated through the 1980s and 1990s as companies sought ways to shift the responsibility of retirement savings to employees, away from the defined-benefit pension plans that had previously been the norm.

The shift from defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution plans like the 401(k) was monumental in changing Americans' approach to retirement income planning.

Personal responsibility and control

The advent of 401(k) plans shifted the onus of saving for retirement to the individual. Unlike defined benefit pension plans, where the employer promised a certain payout upon retirement, 401(k) plans put employees in the driver's seat. They could decide how much to contribute (within federal limits) and had the ability to manage their own investments within the plan. This shift required a new level of financial literacy and planning from employees.

That’s because 401(k) plans, being primarily invested in the stock market, exposed individuals' retirement savings to market volatility. This could lead to higher returns in a bullish market, but it also meant that downturns could significantly impact retirement savings. This was a stark contrast to the relative stability of defined benefit pension plans, which promised a specific payout regardless of market conditions.

However, 401(k) plans also offered greater portability compared to traditional pension plans. As people began changing jobs more frequently, being able to take their retirement savings with them became increasingly important. With a 401(k) plan, employees could roll over their savings into a new 401(k) or an individual retirement account (IRA) when they changed jobs.

Many employers incentivize participation in 401(k) plans by matching employee contributions up to a certain percentage. This employer match effectively provides "free money" to participants, boosting their retirement savings and encouraging consistent contributions.

Annuities gain in popularity

Also, with the decline of defined benefit pension plans, which provide a guaranteed income for life, many retirees have turned to annuities as a way to replicate that income stream.

Annuities are financial products offered by insurance companies. In exchange for an upfront payment or series of payments, the insurance company promises to make regular payments to the annuity owner (the "annuitant") for a specified period or for the rest of the annuitant's life. The payments can start immediately or at some future date, depending on the types of annuities.

Immediate annuities, in which the annuitant begins receiving payments soon after making an initial lump sum payment, can provide a predictable and steady source of income that is not directly affected by stock market fluctuations.

Fixed annuities, which provide a guaranteed payment amount, have been used by retirees seeking stability in their retirement income. This can be particularly attractive during periods of market volatility or low interest rates, when other sources of income may be less predictable or secure.

Trends change about working beyond retirement age

In the past several decades, the landscape of workforce participation for Americans aged 65 and over has changed significantly. Here's a comparison of the situation in 1960 versus the past decade.

In 1960, workforce participation for Americans 65 and over was on a downward trend. The concept of retirement as a time for leisure after a lifetime of work was gaining popularity, fueled in part by the establishment of Social Security and Medicare, which provided a safety net for older citizens.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 46.6% of men and 9% of women aged 65 and older were in the labor force in 1960. However, these rates were declining, and they would continue to decline until the 1980s.

The primary reasons for older Americans to remain in the workforce in 1960 were often financial necessity and the lack of a sufficient pension or savings. However, societal attitudes often stigmatized older workers, viewing them as less productive or resistant to change.

In contrast, the past decade has seen an upward trend in labor force participation among Americans aged 65 and older. According to recent federal statistics, approximately 19.3% of Americans aged 65 and older were in the labor force. This represents a significant increase from the rates seen in the late 20th century, and this trend is expected to continue.

The reasons for this shift are multifaceted. First, increases in life expectancy and overall health mean that many older Americans are capable of continuing to work. Second, changes in the nature of work, with more jobs in the service sector and fewer physically demanding jobs, have made it more feasible for older adults to remain in the workforce.

Financial factors also play a significant role. The shift from defined-benefit pension plans to defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, has made retirement savings more uncertain for many. Additionally, concerns about the adequacy of Social Security, rising health care costs, and increased longevity mean that many older adults feel the need to continue working to ensure financial security.

Attitudes toward older workers have also evolved. While age discrimination still exists, older workers are often valued for their experience, reliability and work ethic. Furthermore, the idea of phased retirement or encore careers is becoming more accepted, with many older adults choosing to work part-time or in different capacities during their retirement years.


In 2023, the concept of retirement is much broader than it had been in 1960. Rather than being seen as a time of relaxation and leisure, retirement is now increasingly viewed as a new stage of life with opportunities for personal growth, community engagement, and continued learning. Many retirees returned to school, started businesses or took on volunteer roles.

The changing concept of retirement has many benefits. It allows people to live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. It also gives them more freedom to choose how they want to spend their retirement years. However, there are also some challenges associated with the changing concept of retirement. One challenge is that people may not have enough financial resources to support themselves in retirement. Another challenge is that people may not be prepared for the emotional changes that come with retirement.

Despite the challenges, the changing concept of retirement is a positive development. It allows people to enjoy their golden years and live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company dedicated to the art of personal financial planning. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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