Why No City Can Afford to Forget About Seniors

Baby boomers aren't drawn to the same sorts of retirement communities their parents were.

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Traditionally, mayors and economic developers have focused their efforts on making their communities great places for families, emphasizing good schools, up-to-date infrastructure, and low crime rates. Over the past decade or so, increasing attention has been paid to attracting younger talent. But one age group has factored much less in the conversation: older Americans.

That makes little sense, especially given the size and wealth of this age cohort. America's median age is getting higher, fueled by the aging of its biggest demographic group, the baby boomers. Today, over a quarter of the American population, 81.5 million people, is between 45 and 65 years old, and 13 percent (40.2 million people) are 65 years or older. Ten thousand baby boomers will turn 65 every day through 2031.

This leads to several crucial lines of inquiry, many of which I'll be talking about in more depth this afternoon at the The Atlantic's "Generations" forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. But the most obvious question planners and community builders must now answer is: Where are today's older Americans going to be living? Here's one hint: fewer of them are moving to golf resorts in Florida, Arizona, and other Sun Belt centers than you might think. While many seniors prefer to, or are forced to, retire in place, significant numbers of them are mobile. They move less frequently than their younger counterparts, but Americans over the age of 65 are the most likely to move the farthest distances.

Last summer here on Cities, I wrote about a great map that charted this shift. As I noted at the time:

The biggest losses are in the Great Plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, western Oklahoma, and northern Texas, though people 65 and older are moving to metros like Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Houston, Austin, and Dallas. The East and West coasts are also attracting the 65 and older crowd.

Click on map for interactive version

In my book Who's Your City?, I divided our life-course into three big moves. The first occurs after college; the second not at the point of marriage, but when kids come into the picture. The third happens between ages of 45 and 65, when the kids leave home and we begin to approach the traditional age of retirement.

Baby boomers aren't drawn to the same sorts of retirement communities their parents were. With their greater wealth, higher levels of education, and more active lifestyles, many of them are attracted to big cities, and for many of the same reasons that young people are: opportunity and the benefits that come along with density.

Whether by choice or necessity, many baby boomers are still working, and many will continue to work into their so-called golden years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers 55 and older will make up almost a quarter of the labor force by 2018. The number of workers 75 and older has skyrocketed by 76.7 percent in the past two decades, according to research by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Urban centers have grown substantially in appeal. "After years of raising kids and taking care of large houses, an increasing share of this demographic is interested in downsizing and returning to the hustle and bustle of urban neighborhoods," I wrote in Who's Your City?. Cities provide spaces where they can also indulge post-work passions — a second career, perhaps, or a newly-adopted sport or hobby. An increasing trend is to follow kids and grandkids to bigger city locations. Some have been recently re-singled, and are hoping to find new communities and opportunities for re-partnering.

Big cities provide access to work, amenities, and great medical care, walkable proximity to restaurants, museums, concert halls, parks, and universities with adult education courses. All are tremendous inducements to relocate from the comparative isolation of sprawl-oriented suburbs.

College towns are another increasingly popular choice, with their access to both health-care and diverse, intellectually-stimulating communities, often on a smaller and more affordable scale than in a major city.

Livability matters for quality of life and healthy aging. In a recent AARP report on the subject, Nancy LeaMond wrote that "residents of all ages benefit from safer, barrier-free buildings and streets; as well as from better access to local businesses and more greenspaces. A curb-cut designed for a wheelchair user also benefits a parent pushing a baby stroller. A crosswalk safe for a senior is a crosswalk safe for a child. A community that is friendly for an 80 year-old can be friendly for an 8 year-old—and everyone else in between."

In Who's Your City?, I rated and ranked destinations for the third big move, both for younger empty-nesters and retirees aged 65 and above. These rankings, developed by my colleague Kevin Stolarick, were based on a number of factors: the share of people in these age groups; local economic conditions; amenities such as golf courses, marinas and arts and culture; crime rate; access to and cost of high-quality health-care; and weather conditions. Stolarick compiled these rankings for 167 metropolitan regions across the United States: the 49 metros with more than a million people; the 46 with 500,000 to 1 million people; and the 72 regions with 250,000 to 500,000 people.

The top-ranked locations for empty nesters in the 45 to 64 age group were San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, and Hartford among large metros. Among medium-sized metros, Stamford, Connecticut; Portland, Maine; Madison, Wisconsin; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Rochester, New York ranked highest. The top-ranked locations among small metros were Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado; Trenton, New Jersey (which includes Princeton), Santa Rosa, California; and Norwich, Connecticut.

The best locations for retirees age 65 and over were San Francisco, New York, Boston, San Jose, and Miami among large metros. Among medium-sized metros, Stamford, Palm Bay, Sarasota, Honolulu, and Ventura, California rank highest. Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, Trenton, Port St. Lucie and Naples, Florida were the best smaller metros for this group. 

Later today, I'll join my colleague Steve Clemons to discuss these demographic shifts, and much more, at The Atlantic's "Conversation on Generations."

Top image: yamix / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here