Why Aren’t There More Old Criminals?

The Freakonomics in-box regularly fills up with interesting tales (like this one and this one). The other day, a reader from Dallas named Erik Hille took reader e-mail to a whole new level. He was writing about the Feb. 1 entry in our fact-a-day calendar, which excerpts a fact from our book in the chapter on crime:

“The average sixty-five-year-old person is about one-fiftieth as likely to be arrested as the average teenager.”

As you will see, Hille turns reading into an interactive sport. I hope you enjoy his contribution as much as I did. Here’s what he had to say:

Being an actuarial retirement plan consultant, I was interested in why this might be true:

  • Most criminals have retired by age 65.
  • They are better at planning for retirement and better at funding their retirement than the rest of us.
  • Occupational hazards require early retirement.
  • Geriatric conditions are not compatible with criminal behavior.
  • The incidence of disability is high, and Social Security and disability benefits pay more than crime would for a disabled criminal (sort of like the Social Security argument below).
  • Very few criminals have survived in the general population to age 65, due to mortality and permanent incarceration (otherwise know as a life term without parole). (It might be noted that when Social Security was first introduced, the average life expectancy [in the U.S.] was around 65, and only about 50 percent of the population was expected to actually live to collect Social Security benefits.)
  • Social Security pays better than criminal activity (similar to your documentation of gang members making the equivalent of minimum wage).
  • Criminals are not very good at inventing new modus operandi, and after being caught a few times for the same racket, they often realize that the cops are onto their schemes.
  • Senior criminals are just better at [crime] than teenagers, and know how not to get caught.
  • Senior criminals have all graduated to white-collar crime, and are no longer hunted by the police or included in crime statistics.
  • New younger criminals and recent criminal immigrants have taken over that segment of the economy.
  • Senior criminals have been promoted to management positions where they are less likely to be charged with a crime, as they are not directly associated with criminal acts under investigation.
  • Senior criminals have hired younger criminals to do their work for them (a combination of the above two).
  • It is generational: 45 to 55 years ago, when the current 65-year-old criminals were teenagers and would have been starting their criminal careers, a much smaller percentage of the population was engaged in criminal activity. Or, if they were engaged in criminal activity, such activity was later legalized (e.g., alcohol and pornography).
  • Forty-five to 55 years ago, abortion was not legal, but shotgun weddings were culturally enforced. Thus, there were fewer children raised by single parents, and, by correlation, fewer criminals.
  • Is there anything that Mr. Hille hasn’t covered?

    Jim Ryan

    In capitalist countries the real money is in business, banking, insurance, and mortgage lending-- the criminal mentality legitimized and rewarded.

    The media concentrates on small-time street thugs, prostitutes and violence against individuals, the low-end variety of crime.

    By contrast, the people who con you into mortgage contracts you cannot really afford are a whole lot more dangerous, and their profits are a thousand times those of the fool who knocks off a liquor store.

    And these big-time, legal criminal types are often not young.


    How about senior citizens are simply less likely to be arrested? The majority of crime isn't Ocean's Eleven-style. If say an 18-year-old and a 65-year-old are both caught shoplifting, who is more likely to get the silver bracelets?

    In addition, I'm surprised that more is not included about police behavior. Profiling should definitely be on the list. I am 20 and have been pulled over more than once in the last six months for no apparent reason.


    The same reasons there are fewer female criminals?

    John M.

    Actually, senior citizen crime is on the rise, especially in Germany. Inadequate social welfare for the elderly has been cited as the motivating factor. It seems that the demographic for emerging senior criminals is dominated by those that tended to be law abiding in earlier life as opposed to career criminals. This may presage future conditions here in the U.S. as it becomes more difficult for seniors to make ends meet.



    Greg said it better than I.


    Isn't this simple selection bias? By 65, the ineffective criminals have been arrested, possibly several times. By 65, they're either in jail on lengthy sentences, or have long stopped trying to be criminals, because they are clearly no good at it. In contrast, those who are still criminals at 65 are those who are exceedingly good criminals, and as a result, they do not get caught nearly as often.
    This seems to be the simplest explanation, even though clearly the risk attitudes of young people are probably the dominant reason for this discrepancy.


    Perhaps it's the fact that many teenage behaviors that are illegal for them (ie drinking alcohol) are legal for 65 year-olds. Since a large percentage of arrests in this country are based on possession of controlled substances, 65-year olds can legally commit acts that are illegal (and likely to be punished for teens) Add to that the likelihood that the drugs of choice of 65-year olds will be legal while teens' drugs won't and you've accounted for a large part of your gap.


    Criminal enterprise is generally a high risk activity and risk taking behavior decreases with age. As individuals age, their brain chemistry and hormone levels change which results in decreased sensation seeking and risk taking activities. Old people's brains just don't compel them to be criminals anymore. That's probably especially true once one's reproductive years are behind them.


    Prof. Roy F. Baumeister has a plausible explanation: young males tend to take risks to be successful in the sexual selection game. His observation is most geniuses and criminals are males in their prime reproductive years. His explanation is since only a small number of males can fertilize many females, the pressure for males to stand out from the crowd is greater, and natural selection has favored risk-taking in males during their prime reproductive years. Natural selection has programmed us to mellow out as we age, since it's the best reproductive strategy.



    The answer is in the fact there are so many men incarcerated at a young age

    - Why aren't there more old criminals? Because we have already incarcerated them while they were young, and as sentencing guidelines become increasingly more harsh, and as more states add 3 strikes you're out laws, we will continue to incarcerate young people for long terms, at young ages. Thus, only the young have the opportunity to be incarcerated. By the time they are older, they are already serving 20-life.


    The age-crime profile is similar across countries and time periods, suggesting that it is not related to institutional features of a country. I would suggest that the primary reasons are related to biology and time allocation. Biologically, teens are physically mature, but mentally less so. As a result, they are more prone to the quick and low payoff of criminal activity, while older individuals are not. As for time, teens have less marketable human capital, suggesting that they spend more time in the criminal sector.

    world traveler

    Policemen don't suspect people that look like grandpa? That's looking at it from the other side.

    I really think the social security argument is the best - but can you collect if you never paid?


    First and foremost it would be that in a number of studies, male teenagers (who would make up the bulk of that statistic,) don't have fully developed impulse control. I would be willing to bet that most of those teenage crimes would be related to impulse control issues and not be predicative of long term criminal behaviour.


    Teenage males display their abilities, skills, wealth, and strength in order to attract and mate with females. This need to out-compete leads to aggressive and risky behavior. This need decreases over time as males find mates and produce children. At this point the tendency is to become more risk averse in order provide and protect their children.


    What about maturity? As one lives longer, you might get wiser, more aware of the social contract that dictates that its wrong to steal, kill, etc. You look back at the sins of your youth with regret. AKA 'finding religion'.

    Cliff Tuttle, Pittsburgh

    I knew the answer to this question after six or seven months of jail visits in my early career as a lawyer. Many violent criminals eventually burn out. Any warden at penitentiary can verify.


    We all did stupid things in our youth. As we get older, we get wiser.
    Unfortunately we have a culture that disdains wisdom. It is easier to extract money from fools. So we have a society that encourages recklessness and instant results because it makes money off of it.
    Drugs and alcohol exacerbate foolishness and destroy discrimination. The media glamorizes the danger - as long as the body is beautiful. Impulsiveness in a twenty-year-old may seem sexy; in a sixty-year-old, the same actions seem pathetic: LOSER.

    As we get older, even if we have not mentally lost the rush for constant excitement, our bodies get grumpy and no longer assist us with unbounded energy. It all becomes rather sad.

    Clyde Kahrl

    These days, in Ohio, young men are arrested and convicted just for walking around.
    Jenna Bush was arrested for underage drinking, while she was still on probation from her first conviction. It didn't matter because she was female. If she had been a young man in Ohio, she would have been put away for 6 months.
    While it is true that older people learn to not get caught, we are now seeing a world where young men are treated with abuse at every turn. If they look suspicious, they get charged with the felony of Obstruction of Police Business. This is a charge more vague than loitering.
    When one sees that 30% of all men will be sent to prison before they are 30, well, you might ask if you think 30% of all young men are hardened criminals.


    Can't believe I haven't seen this one posted yet, considering I don't even listen to the same music as I did before I had kids for the same reason. Older people are more likely to have children and grandchildren by that age, which will have caused them to re-think the criminal lifestyle because they don't want to set a bad example.

    There's probably a good amount of ageism too. If you're looking for someone to collaborate with on a crime, who are you going to hire? Assuming you're not Danny Ocean or have a specific need for an older person to fill a role. There must be a lot more low-level criminal jobs than high-level ones, and the low-level ones lend themselves to youth.

    What about risk aversion? My grandparents consider a new restaurant to be too adventurous, let alone a scheme.


    I would like to see the numbers broken down by type of crime. I'm a criminal defense attorney, and my personal experience has been that white collar offenders, particularly male ones, tend to be older. Violent offenders tend to be very young (with the exception, perhaps, of domestic violence offenders, who run the gamut). Drug offenders also run the gamut - teens to forties. I agree that people, particularly males, tend to become less impulsive and violent as they age. Drug offenders tend to die young; their bodies just wear out. Many drug offenders, particularly federal ones, are banned from receiving federal benefits. So social security and disability payments do not explain their behavior. Stealing must be the white-collar offender's retirement plan.