Avent dusts off the history books:
From a historical perspective the entire retirement concept it is relatively new. For most of civilisation the average person worked until they became too sick or feeble, or died. According to Dora Costa’s book on the history of retirement, in 1880's America more than three-quarters of men over 64 and half of 85-year olds still worked. When people did retire they had little wealth and often were dependent on relatives. The growth of retirement was driven by changes in the labour force (a move away from family farms and toward production and services), new social norms (which made retirement the expectation and created a critical mass of retirees), and financial incentives (income from state pensions and private pensions from employers). The introduction of state pensions was significant because it provided retirement income for everyone (including those too poor to save). This allowed elderly people to cease work and not be dependent on their families. To this day, many people rely on state benefits as their primary source of retirement income.
McArdle finds no easy solution. She is in favor of rising the retirement age. But:
I notice that it is a proposal espoused and endorsed by sedentary people who have interesting jobs as policy wonks. Moving people off the social security rolls and onto the disability system is not a huge help.
Moreover, this proposal will not do much good unless you also raise the early retirement age; seven out of ten retirees collect their benefits before age 65 (or now 66). Keeping people in the workforce means more years of taxes to prop up the system. Otherwise it's just a benefit cut by another name--and if you cut them far enough, you end up with the elderly on other forms of public assistance to make up the shortfall.