The boomer generation, spawned (literally) in the aftermath of the Second World War, will continue to shape the American landscape well into the 21st Century. They may be getting older, but these folks are still maintaining their power. Those born in the first ten years of the boomer generation — between 1945 and 1955 — number 36 million, and they will continue to influence communities and real estate markets across the country, especially as they contemplate life after kids and retirement.
Much has been written about where “empty nesters” might move as their children move off on their own. One longstanding favorite is the notion that, having jettisoned their children, the boomers will also desert their suburban communities for the bright city lights.
Unfortunately for developers — some of whom have invested heavily in high-end housing for urbanizing “empty nesters” — the actual data do not support this thesis. Indeed, our analysis of migration by this cohort in the past 10 years shows a 10.3% decline among core city dwellers, a loss of some 1.3 million people over the past decade. For this analysis, Forbes, with the help of demographer Wendell Cox, looked at population numbers from the Census for boomers aged 45 to 54 in 2000 and compared them with the numbers for those ages 55 to 64 in 2010.
These population changes include reductions due principally to deaths. Census data do not include mortality information. This cohort lost 3.2% of its population over the 10 years. This would only marginally reduce the changes between 2000 and 2010, while the scale of differences between the metropolitan areas would be identical.
So where are these surviving boomers settling as they enter their likely extended golden years? The results may surprise urban boosters who have confidently expected them to flock downtown.
To be sure, a few of the highly affluent — the ones mentioned in the mainstream media — may purchase homes, or pied-à-terres, in places like Manhattan, Chicago’s Gold Coast or San Francisco. But these areas actually have suffered an exodus of boomers over the past decade. In our ranking of the 51 largest metros in the U.S., the urban cores of San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago scored near the bottom, suffering double-digit percentage losses of boomers. According to the last Census, New York’s urban core, which the Daily News suggested is packed with aspiring seniors, lost 12% of boomers in their mid-50s to mid-60s — or about 274,000 people.
Over the past three years you could blame this loss on the economy, which has postponed retirements brought home many of the boomers’ young, largely unemployed or underemployed children back to the suburban homestead. Or you can credit it to more active lifestyles among boomers who appear to working later than ever. According to a Careerbuilder.com survey, over 60% of workers over 60 indicated they are postponing retirement.
Yet perhaps something more profound is at work here. An analysis of those who were 55 to 65 in 2000 and 65 to 75 in 2010 reveals an even stronger anti-urban bias, with an over 12% drop in city dwellers. Since these folks are far less likely to have kids at home and more properly retired, this cohort’s behavior suggests that aging boomers are if anything less likely to move to the cities in the next decade.
Indeed, if boomers do move, notes Sandi Rosenbloom, a noted expert on retirement trends and professor of Planning and Civil Engineering at the University of Arizona, they tend to move to less dense and more affordable regions. The top cities for aging boomers largely parallel those that appealed to the “young and restless” in our earlier survey. The top ten on our list are all affordable, generally low-density Sun Belt metros:
- Las Vegas, Nev.
- Phoenix, Ariz.
- Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.
- Orlando, Fla.
- Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.
- Raleigh, N.C.
- Austin, Texas
- San Antonio, Texas
- Jacksonville, Fla.
- Charlotte, N.C.-S.C.
But according Sandi Rosenbloom, a noted expert on retirement trends and a professor of planning and civil engineering at the University of Arizona, most boomers are staying put, largely in the suburbs they settled in decades ago. The propensity to move, she points out, starts to drop precipitously as people leave their early 30s. Roughly 1 in 3 people in their 20s move in a given year; by the time they enter their 40s, that figure slides to about 1 in 10. As people age into their 50s and beyond, the percentage drops to roughly 5%, or 1 in 20.
“The boomers are staying put more than anyone thought,” Rosenbloom says. “People of that generation tend to own their own homes and stay there. The idea that they are moving to the city really comes from the wishful thinking school of planning.”
The recession has exacerbated this stay-at-home trend. The number of people moving is at its lowest level since the early 1960s. When boomers do decide to move, Rosenbloom notes, they do so largely for prosaic reasons, such as being closer to children or, more important, grandchildren.
Others succumb to the temptation to cash out expensive housing in metros like New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area or Boston for less costly residences in Sun Belt locales. Housing in and around these core cities, particularly in attractive neighborhoods, Rosenbloom adds, are simply too expensive for the vast majority of budget-conscious seniors.
Much of this also has to do with the lifestyle preferences of both boomers and seniors, which appear far different than those put forth by urban pundits. People over 55 that Rosenbloom has interviewed usually express a preference to stay or relocate in places that are less crowded and congested. Furthermore, most are reluctant to give up their cars, and many are less able to walk than drive. This may explain why most retirement communities end up on the urban fringe or farther.
This trend — which Rosenbloom has also encountered in the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand — is also reflected by the growing shift to smaller towns and cities among both aging boomers and seniors. The “young and restless” may head to suburbs, particularly in the lower-cost Sun Belt cities, but some older Americans appear headed to even less densely populated regions. Over the past decade over 1 million aging boomers and seniors moved to more smaller cities and rural locations from suburban or urban locations.
What do these trends suggest for the future of our communities and real estate? For one, the big opportunities for selling to aging boomers will remain primarily in the suburbs and some select more rural locations. We also can expect the new senior citizens to move to more affordable places close to their children.
These findings do provide some long-term hope for the housing market, particularly in suburbs. Leading demographers have been busy predicting a massive drop-off in single-family homes as boomers retire and their children leave. Yet our analysis on the Census reveals that most boomers — as well as those older than them — are staying in the suburbs a lot longer than expected. Many will likely to stay in their homes and old neighborhoods well into their 70s or even 80s, leaving either their home either in an ambulance or to an assisted living facility.
Developers and planners anxious to service aging boomers should, instead of building downtown towers, address the needs of this generation precisely where they now live and are likely to stay. This could include adding to new residential options in the suburbs to enlivening local shopping districts while boosting senior services in everything from recreation and public safety to health care. As the rock and roll generation heads toward its dotage, both business and communities need to adjust their strategies based not on fantasies but on the realities so clearly evidenced by the Census.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.