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Americans have an impressive arsenal of age-fighting tools, and we seem to get more every year.
Some, like gym memberships and healthier diets, bespeak virtue and sacrifice. Others, like Viagra and plastic surgery, reek of vanity and cash on the barrelhead. All share essentially the same goal — to roll back some internal or external mileage and preserve vitality, or the illusion of vitality.
But, even in a society that reveres youth, there are certain unavoidable events that confront all of us with age and mortality. Events that sidle up to us when we think we’re alone and rasp, “It’s great what you’re doing with the cholesterol and the walking, old-timer … but you’re still closer to the end of this ride than you are to the start.”
This week’s calendar entry finds my grandfather at just such a moment, a few months shy of age 65.
Nowadays, applying for Social Security benefits can be done online in as little as 15 minutes. (The Social Security Administration uses an odd-couple pair of graying actors, Patty Duke and George Takei, to advertise this convenience.)
Applying for the benefits that are supposed to carry you from retirement to death now takes only slightly longer than choosing a good summer beach read on Amazon.com. Another American attempt to downplay the arrival of age, perhaps.
In 1975, applying for Social Security benefits probably meant a drive to a bricks-and-mortar office, toting a folder of personal documents, and maybe a wait to sit down and talk to an actual person. It was more of an imposition on one’s personal time; more of an occasion; and more the sort of thing to leave you walking out to your car, wondering where the years went.
I have no way to know what my grandfather thought or felt on May 7, 1975. (The red outline around the words “Applied for Soc. Sec.” suggests he thought of the event as significant. Most of his calendar entries didn’t get that highlighted treatment.)
He might have been heartened by the story of Ida May Fuller, the first recipient of a monthly Social Security check, who had died earlier that year. Ms. Fuller made Social Security contributions for only three years before retiring in 1940. She then proceeded to live another 35 years, receiving almost $22,900 in benefits compared to the $24.75 she paid in Social Security taxes.
Seen through today’s eyes, the story of Ida Fuller is a red flag of mammoth proportions. But from the perspective of a new applicant, Fuller’s example would have seemed comforting. It would have suggested that the system would help support him no matter how long he lived.
My grandfather paid considerably more in Social Security tax than Ida Fuller did, and lived roughly nine fewer years. And the Social Security system struggled at times during his life — particularly during the early 1980s, when it approached insolvency.
Still, it seems safe to say that Social Security helped take care of him well enough, which may be more than it will do for his children and grandchildren.
On that note, I’m going to go watch the sun shine through the holes in my 401(k).
Appendix 1: For those who like trivia, my grandfather’s Social Security number began with 027. No material prizes, but a tip of the cap, to the first commenter to correctly identify the state where it was issued.
Appendix 2: Congratulations to Emily R. of Union, New Jersey, who this past week became the first reader to sign up for an e-mail subscription. You’ll be the Ida May Fuller of 5,478 Days T-shirts, whenever we get them printed up.