WASHINGTON — Young Americans might not get full Social Security retirement benefits until they reach age 70 if some trial balloons that prominent lawmakers of both parties are floating become law.
No one who's slated to receive benefits in the next decade or two is likely to be affected, but there's a gentle, growing and unusually bipartisan push to raise the retirement age for full Social Security benefits for people born in the 1960s and after.
The suggestions are being taken seriously after decades when they were politically impossible because officials — and, increasingly, their constituents — are confronting the challenge of the nation's debt.
Social Security was created in 1935 with a retirement age of 65, but since then life expectancy at that age has increased by about six years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Today the full Social Security benefit retirement age is 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954. It then increases by two months for each birth year (66 years and two months for those born in 1955, 66 and four months for those born in 1956 and so forth), until those born in 1960 or later get full benefits at age 67.
Raising the age eventually to 70 could prove to be politically acceptable because it wouldn't have an immediate social impact, but it would demonstrate that politicians are resolute enough to mend one of the government's most popular social programs and to tackle the national debt.
If they did, they'd have substantial academic backing.
"For a while, there's been a consensus among economists that raising the retirement age makes a lot of sense," said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow and the director of the Retirement Policy Program at the Urban Institute, a Washington research group.
Still, there are potential downsides.
"There are some incredible ramifications to raising the age," said Barbara Kennelly, the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "Not everyone can work until they're 70."
Despite such concerns, the trial balloons are firmly anchored.
Last month, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., launched his in a major address to a Washington budget conference.
"We're lying to ourselves and our children if we say we can maintain our current levels of entitlement spending, defense spending and taxation without bankrupting our country," he said.
"We could and should consider a higher retirement age or one pegged to life span, more progressive Social Security and Medicare benefits, and a stronger safety net for the Americans who need it most."
GOP leader agrees
Soon after, House of Representatives Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the age eventually could be raised to 70.
"Raising the retirement age — going out 20 years and not affecting anyone close to retirement, and eventually getting the retirement age to 70 — is a step that needs to be taken," he said.
"I think it's time we have an adult conversation about the problems facing this country," Boehner added later to Fox News. "Clearly, when it comes to Social Security, there's a problem. We made promises our kids and grandkids can't afford."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wouldn't rule out the option.
Hoyer "made a very important statement about putting everything on the table," she said, "subjecting everything to scrutiny when it comes time to figuring out how we lower the deficit in a very transformational way."
The lawmakers stress that raising the full-retirement age should be only one of a series of Social Security changes.
Their views represent a subtle but important shift. Traditionally, Social Security was considered "the third rail" of politics — touch it and you die — because people cherished their benefits so much.
That changed only once, in 1983, when a bipartisan Social Security commission's recommendations led to increases in payroll taxes and a gradual rise in the retirement age, putting the system on a path to solvency for decades.
In the years since, however, proposals for more changes have gone nowhere, but the debt threat is forcing another look.