College football became popular in the 1920s and 1930s when teams like Notre Dame, Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale and military academies were the powerhouses. Players at the time wore simple leather helmets with no face masks, and there were plenty of broken noses and missing teeth. When the modern-day helmet was devised, it virtually eliminated those problems.

Ironically, players eventually began to use their helmets as weapons, their solid rushing mass used like the tip of a spear, and today players often end their careers with debilitating head injuries.  The unintended consequences of protecting football players from facial injuries arguably resulted in exposing them to greater life-changing head injuries.

The costs of living longer

The theory of unintended consequences is prevalent in almost every area of human interaction. This has been true, and will certainly continue to be true, in high profile areas such as health care.  The perfect example is the growth of our Medicare system for older adults.  When Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in the mid ’60s, the average adult did not live significantly beyond the age of 65. In fact, it was envisioned that Medicare was a way to allow most senior citizens to die with dignity.

Advancements in medical science have significantly increased the average life expectancy, and the burden of the Medicare program to the taxpayers has become enormous. Clearly, the unintended consequence of starting a health care program for senior citizens that never envisioned its success eventually sowed the seeds of financial ruin. Age 65, after all, is a made-up number. It was first used in the 1800s by social scientists in Germany as the benchmark age for people to retire and begin getting government benefits. Those early pioneers could have picked any age, but 65 was useful because relatively few people lived that long and the governmental liability was, therefore, modest.  Sixty-five became embedded in our culture when President Franklin Roosevelt used it as a starting point for social security, and Johnson used it for initiation of the Medicare program several decades later.

Age is just a number

The age 65 became woven into private pension plans, and more importantly, we as a society adopted it as a jumping off point for when we contemplated our own personal retirement. As a result of healthier lifestyles and improvement in the medical care system, age 65 for retirement and for the initiation of social security and Medicare is becoming a real liability.

It is interesting to contemplate how different the world would be if the early political progressives in Germany had selected age 75. Our whole social fabric would be very different.