Where Seniors are Moving: Migration Patterns Among Baby Boomers and Other Seniors and What It Means for Planning and Economic Development


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Baby Boomers are a demographic force that holds sway over politics, economics, and city planning. Americans over the age of 55 are a hot topic in planning circles, and their future location decisions are the focus of much debate and speculation. Many big cities are anticipating seniors will downsize their homes, moving to more urban locales where walking, transit, and culture replace big lawns, automobiles and long work commutes.  Elsewhere, retirement meccas are banking on age-restricted housing or other senior-focused amenities as a lure for people 55 and up looking for active living environments. Everywhere, economic development agencies recognize seniors as a group with disposable income and an interest in high quality health care (which itself creates better paying jobs), and are hoping to lure seniors away from other states as a way to improve their community’s economic well-being. These are all great theories, and ones with a great deal of developer money behind them. But a key question arises:

Are seniors moving? And if so, where?

To help answer that question, we turned to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which has data on migration by county. What we found suggests that big cities and communities with a senior-friendly quality of life are indeed attracting seniors, but not in the quantities these areas are hoping for and expecting. If this trend persists, it will have far-reaching impacts on planning and economic development.

 

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This phenomenon has been true for as long as the ACS has kept records:

Years % Population 55+ % Movers 55+ Ratio of Movers 55+
2005-07 23.4% 9.7% 41.52%
2006-08 23.8% 9.8% 41.22%
2007-09 24.1% 9.8% 40.64%
2008-10 24.8% 10.0% 40.55%
2009-11 25.3% 10.3% 40.75%
2010-12 25.8% 10.9% 42.04%

The percent of movers aged 55 and up has increased, but only in relation to total senior population increases. The proportion of seniors moving relative to the total senior population is essentially unchanged. It seems, therefore, that moving out is a young person’s game, and this could put a crimp in many plans.

While fewer seniors are moving than may have been expected, the locations to which they are moving are unsurprising. The map below shows the total number of people 55 and older who moved to a new county between 2010 and 2012.

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The areas in red are the places that had the most in-migration among people 55 and over. For the most part, they are major population centers, with Florida, California, Texas, the Midwest and the Northeast Corridor all highlighted. In this respect, the assumption that seniors would move to big cities seems to have been a good one. But the map makes some telling changes when you dissect the dataset further.

The ACS migration data can be broken into interstate and intrastate migration (i.e. moving to a new state vs moving within the same state). Further, the dataset provides interstate and intrastate migration by age group, allowing for an analysis of relative migration. The relative migration patterns may offer more clues to why seniors are moving, and also offer some pessimism about the role big cities are playing in senior migration.

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The areas of the map in red are those with the highest proportion of seniors moving there from out of state. Florida, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast, and the Upper Midwest are all major attractors for seniors, as are pockets of Texas, Missouri, and the Carolinas. But the big cities of the Midwest, Northeast, and South are not. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami are capturing a much smaller proportion of seniors moving from out of state than total senior migration suggests, portending trouble for Baby Boomer lifestyle housing pushes in those cities. And still, barely 10% of counties have senior migration rates of 25% or more, despite seniors comprising 25% of the population. As a result, there are a few “winners” throughout the country and a large number of counties that will see very little impact from senior in-migration from other states.

Interestingly, the map changes in subtle but important ways when looking instead at people who moved within their home state.

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It seems that seniors moving within their own state are limiting themselves to an even smaller portion of the country, with the coastlines attracting the largest proportion of in-state senior movers. Areas like Phoenix, Southern California, and the central counties in Florida are all attracting a smaller percentage of the 55 and older set from within their own state than from other states.

So why the difference?

Certainly, there’s a chance that this is just random noise from a 3-year period of time. But it may also signal a different rationale for seniors who move from out of state versus those in-state. Perhaps seniors moving within their own state are moving more often for quality of life reasons, but are not willing to move as far to do so. Seniors who are compelled to move longer distances may be doing so for more complex reasons, like work or family obligations, but are reluctant to relocate to big cities. And most importantly, far fewer seniors are moving than are needed to support the large increase in senior-friendly housing throughout the country.

More data will be needed to validate these theories. But if this general pattern proves to be true over time, it may signal a need for a shift in the way we attract and plan for seniors. The data suggest that efforts focused on aging in place are as important as those focused on attracting new senior populations. While synergies exist in making a community senior-friendly for existing residents and attracting new residents, local expectations about the impact of senior in-migration need to be appropriately tempered – at least for now.

By Jeremy Goldstein and Alan Steinbeck

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