Where Are The Boomers Headed? Not Back To The City


Perhaps no urban legend has played as long and loudly as the notion that “empty nesters” are abandoning their dull lives in the suburbs for the excitement of inner city living. This meme has been most recently celebrated in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Both stories, citing research by the real estate brokerage Redfin, maintained that over the last decade a net 1 million boomers (born born between 1945 and 1964) have moved into the city core from the surrounding area. “Aging boomers,” the Post gushed, now “opt for the city life.” It’s enough to warm the cockles of a downtown real-estate speculator’s heart, and perhaps nudge some subsidies from city officials anxious to secure their downtown dreams.

But there’s a problem here: a look at Census data shows the story is based on flawed analysis, something that the Journal subsequently acknowledged. Indeed, our number-crunching shows that rather than flocking into cities, there were roughly a million fewer boomers in 2010 within a five-mile radius of the centers of the nation’s 51 largest metro areas compared to a decade earlier.

If boomers change residences, they tend to move further from the core, and particularly to less dense places outside metropolitan areas. Looking at the 51 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents, areas within five miles of the center lost 17% of their boomers over the past decade, while the balance of the metropolitan areas, predominately suburbs, only lost 2%. In contrast places outside the 51 metro areas actually gained boomers.

Only one city, Miami, recorded a net gain in the boomer population within five miles of the center, roughly 1%. Much ballyhooed back to city markets including Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco suffered double-digit percentage losses within the five-mile zone.

Where the boomers move is critical to the real estate industry, as well as other businesses. This is a large and relatively wealthy generation. Boomers account for some 70% of the country’s disposable income, and their spending decisions will shake markets around the country.

Given the importance of this market, why has the analysis of it proved so wrong? One factor may well be that most boomers generally do not really want to move if they can help it. Three out of four boomers want to “age in place,” according to a recent AARP  study.

Part of the problem is one found commonly in press reporting on demographic trends; reporters only tend to know what they see, and mostly they work almost exclusively in urban cores. They encounter empty nester who moves to Manhattan or even downtown St. Louis, but not the ones who moves to the desert, lake, the mountains, the woods or into an adult-oriented community on the urban fringe. Out of the core, these people often fade into media oblivion.

However, as people age, they turn out to be not, as one developer suggests, “more hip hop and happening” than more likely to seek remaining not only close to home, but attached to the workforce and the neighborhood. A recent series in the Dallas Morning News tracked where local empty nesters were moving — largely to low-crime, well-maintained suburbs and exurbs. What were they looking for? The paper found the biggest concern by far to be safety, followed by affordability and quiet.

So if boomers aren’t flocking to inner cities, which of the 51 biggest metro areas are gaining the largest share of them? The top gainers are all relatively low-cost, low-density Sun Belt metropolises, led by Las Vegas. Its boomer population expanded 20.2% from 2000 to 2010, with a 12.2% decline in the five-mile inner ring and 36.3% growth outside it. In second place, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., up 11.5% (-8.3% in the five-mile zone, +13.5% outside); followed by Phoenix, whose boomer population rose 11.3% (-22.8%, +15.0%). In contrast, more expensive, denser cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif., saw the worst boomer flight, suffering double-digit percentage losses.

What are the implications of these findings? For cities, time to forget the long-anticipated “back to the city” trend among seniors as something that can save their downtowns. To be sure, there may be some ultra-affluent urban districts that may attract wealthy older investors and buyers, many of them part-time residents, such as Chicago’s Gold Coast and parts of Manhattan. In some elite Manhattan buildings, full-time residents constitute as little as 10% of the total.

A  little further out from these hot spots, boomers are fleeing. The five-mile zone around the City Hall of New York lost about 20% of its boomer population in the past decade, while in Chicago the corresponding area lost 26%.

Ultimately, some downtown places might be a “wonderland,” as The New York Times puts it,for a small group of highly affluent residents. But for most they are outrageously expensive. At an age when capital preservation if often paramount, in New York, the senior best positioned is one living a long time in a rent-controlled apartment.

Cities need to understand that, for the most part, their appeal remains primarily to young, largely single people, students and couples before they have children; cities’ real challenge, and opportunity, lies in trying to keep more of this youthful cohort in the city as they age and expand their households. Boomers and seniors may be able to support luxury apartment developers in parts of Manhattan, but not in most cities.

The boomer population in the five-mile radius of the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas fell by roughly a million from 2000 to 2010, out of a 2000 population of nearly 6 million, or 17%. The boomer population outside the five-mile zone in these metro areas also fell, but at a much lower rate: 2%, or 800,000 people out of a population of 39.5 million in 2000.  Away from the major metros, smaller metropolitan areas and rural areas gained nearly 450,000 boomers. However, there was an overall loss of about 1.3 million boomers, principally due to deaths.

Given the trends, suburbs will likely persist as a primary arena for aging populations. This suggests these communities will have to ramp up services to accommodate them, such as shuttle buses and hospitals. They should cultivate  downshifting boomers as new consumers for local stores, and particularly on Main Streets, and as sources for capital and expertise.

Perhaps the biggest impact, however, may be on smaller metropolitan areas and the less expensive Sun Belt communities. As more boomers achieve “empty nester” status they could bring investment capital, and broader connections to smaller cities that could much use them.

One early sign of this trend may be the recent rise in migration to Florida. After a brief recession-driven hiatus a net 200,000 people have moved to Florida in the last two years. New Census numbers also suggest a  large number of people continue to leave the Northeast, the Midwest and California.  Also likely to benefit will be some emerging boomer magnet communities in Idaho, Arizona, Uta­h, the Carolinas and Colorado.

For real estate developers and investors, the ones often most entranced by the “back to the city” story, the lessons are very clear. It makes more sense to follow the numbers, and understand the logic of senior migration, than swallow the snake oil so many have been carelessly imbibing. There are great opportunities in the expanding senior market, including in some uniquely attractive urban districts— but the bigger plays are in outlying areas, and, increasingly, smaller towns.

Baby Boomer Population (35-54 in 2000/45-64 in 2010)
Comparison: 5 Mile Radius of City Hall v. Balance of Metropolitan Area          
51 Major Metropolitan Areas (2010 Popultion over 1,000,000)            
In thousands (000)                
    2000 2010 Change %   2000 2010  % Change
5-MILE RADIUS     5,895     4,890   (1,005) -17.1%   7.1% 6.0% -15.7%
BALANCE     39,352   38,575      (777) -2.0%   47.5% 47.3% -0.4%
MAJOR METROPOLITAN AREAS (MMAS)   45,247   43,464   (1,783) -3.9%   54.6% 53.3% -2.4%
OUTSIDE MMAS   37,579   38,025        446 1.2%   45.4% 46.7% 2.8%
UNITED STATES   82,826   81,489   (1,337) -1.6%   100.0% 100.0% 0.0%
Calculated from Census Burea data


This story originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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Minneapolis, MN

Well! I guess it’s that old saying, “the grass is never greener on the other side”. That point about the aged not wanting to stray from those long time haunts is well taken. There’s an insecurity as the years tick by I suppose that draws one closest to their roots. That sleeper of a movies starring the great Geraldine Paige comes to mind. “A Trip To Bountiful.” And the fact that most people agree to disagree sums up a lot of marriages so one tends to stay in the comfort zone. Aren’t too many marriages on the same page given the percentage of divorces.

For real estate developers

For real estate developers and investors: the ones frequently most engrossed by the kind of story. It makes more sense to go after the information, and appreciate the reason of senior relocation, than ingest the carelessness.

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The city for me

Age = 64.95
Love living the former streetcar neighborhood. http://3968vrain.com/English/Berkeley_Neighborhood/Berkeley_Neighborhood...
Restaurants. Not chains the way the burbs are.
Mixed income.
Mixed ethnic.
Is safe.
My Yelp list has more than 130 businesses that I have walked to. http://www.yelp.com/list/berkeley-neighborhood-and-slightly-beyond-denve...
Our car is now being driven about 4000 miles per year.
Car2Go. Has extended our walking range by 3 miles.

I Moved from an Expensive City to an Inexpensive City

I am 56 and lived in San Francisco and Redwood City (30 miles south of SF near Palo Alto) my entire life, roughly 32 years off and on in SF and 20+ years in RC. A divorce forced me to lose the home I had owned with my ex in Redwood City and I became a renter in San Francisco. I quickly realized that much as I loved SF, I could not sustain the cost of rent and still afford to retire when I'm 65. I wanted to live in or near a city. I eventually bought a huge home about four miles outside Pittsburgh, PA. I moved this year and I love it. I have the big old house of my dreams, wonderful neighbors and I am a short drive from downtown Pittsburgh. Housing prices here are about 75% lower than SF. I know of other Bay Area Boomers who are planning to leave the Bay Area within the next few years because of the housing costs. I plan to stay in my Pittsburgh home until I am unable to manage a big house. At that point I plan to move to a condo in downtown Pittsburgh or move back to CA and since I'll be retired, live somewhere affordable outside the greater Bay Area. I like to think of myself as a unique individual, but I've found that I often do things that others in my generation are doing because we are facing similar societal, cultural, and economic forces. I have a feeling that I am not unique in wanting to be in or near an urban area. That said, I am unique in that I grew up in a city, not in a suburb. Most Boomers grew up in the burbs and feel most at home in that setting. I think that many who plan to age in place for as long as possible will stay in the burbs. But, while I think the number is smaller, I do think there are a significant percentage like me who can't afford places like San Francisco and New York, but still want to be in or near an urban area and will relocate to do so.

A Tail of Two Cities

I pretty much agree with your assertions concerning where the aging Boomers are headed. I and my wife are on the older side of the Boomers, being 68 and 66 respectively. Our friends in our age cohort are either “aging in place” or moving out to the country or the distant exurbs. Some of this is the issue of being able to cash out of smaller spaces and cash into larger ones with some land around, a way to cope with keeping the stuff one accumulates over one’s peak spending years, plus the stuff left behind by our parents after they have died that we can’t part with. But, I think safety is a big driver in this. I’ve looked through the FBI crimes stats and what stands out is the inverse relationship between population density and violent crimes. In many metro areas, moving just 15 miles down the road can reduce one’s probability of being a victim by 5 to 10 fold. The older you get the less time you have for recoveries of any sort. We are quite lucky, so far. We live in what is an almost exurban area, surrounded by parklands in Marin County, but are 5 minutes away from the freeway and only 20 minutes away from the Opera House and Davis Hall. Crime here is very low, so being mortgage free, we will likely age in place. I like the intense energy of the young folks who are filling the old city center. When I go into town to hang out with my millennial friends in the noisy dives downtown, it is exhilarating but exhausting at the same time. There are always some really creepy people wandering about, but I was raised in a metro downtown and learned to cope. For Boomers raised in the Suburbs, their presence would be a negative determining factor. If you want to avoid them, you need to hang in the more affluent parts of the City, but then the conversation isn’t as lively and drinks cost half again or even twice what the 20somethings are up to paying. It would be really life changing for me to give us my trips and entertainments in the City. Something big and negative would have to happen. But my story is my story and my situation is relatively fortunate. In gratitude, I hope it stays that way.

There may be an affluent subset of boomers heading to cities

This article largely makes sense. However, boomers is a pretty big group of varying races and levels of affluence. I suspect there may be subsets of boomers heading into the cities as they retire (I do know some who are). Many members of ethnic groups may choose to shift to where there are more of their group. Affluent baby boomers who enjoyed the city when they were young and who can afford San Francisco or Manhattan may also move into the city in disproportionate numbers as they retire.

However, get past 60 and it's hard to stay up past 10 so the appeal of the night life can wane. Remaining close to friends and family is a very attractive option.

Noise nuisance disputes are a perennial feature

You're telling me, "noise nuisance" disputes are a perennial feature of inner city living, including the modern funky renewed version.

I suspect there is a movement to the Exurbs by Boomers

Once you no longer need to commute daily, the Exurbs are an ideal place to live. If need be you can travel to the big city to shop, but with Amazon and its competitors there is little need for going to the big city to shop. If you go to a mid size city you can find medical for routine issues as well. With the online entertainment available, about the only thing not available as much is live performances, or fancy restaurants. If one lives 40-60 miles from the city center, one can go to the big city for either if need be.