Writers and planners like to call the aging baby boomer generation a “Silver Tsunami,” but the delta of a mighty river where channels branch off as the water flows into the sea might be a better metaphor.
Boomers, who have been turning 65 since Jan. 1, 2011, get cranky if you call them seniors, but by whatever name, they are America’s second largest generation in terms of numbers. Never before has such a large group of graying Americans begun to retire. Never before has there been as diverse or as many potential options for active retiring adults. Some options may have to be deferred, however, until the economy and the housing market recover.
Many of the best-prepared boomers will be relocating to attractive southern and western cities to pursue active lifestyles or moving locally into the central city and suburban centers upgraded to meet their needs.
Florida? Not so much. Relocating boomers are focusing on sunny, progressive cities such as Raleigh, N.C., and Austin, Texas. Golf? Again, not so much. Older boomers like to get their exercise at the gym and adult adventure programs featuring ziplines and mountain bikes. They are likely to enroll in lifelong learning programs at prestigious universities, and they flock to plays and concerts.
Some Sun Belt cities, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Tallahassee, Fla., among them, view retirees as economic development drivers and are actively marketing their communities to retiring seniors looking for a good place to live.
Relocating, however, is not a feasible option for millions of boomers hit hard by the recession. Their only option in a down economy may be aging in place in older, value-submerged homes they cannot sell, pressuring local governments to expand services for retirees at a time when the recession has forced many of them to cut spending on senior services.
According to William Frey, senior fellow and manager of metropolitan policy research at The Brookings Institution, aging in place is a motivating factor of the senior population in most parts of the country.
The population of baby boomers entering retirement is projected to be 10,000 a day, for at least the next two decades. That daily rate is roughly equivalent to the population of Sedona, an upscale resort and retirement community in Arizona of approximately 12,000 residents.
The Census Bureau projects the senior population will increase by a whopping 55 percent, or more than 20 million people, to a total of 62 million Americans in this decade.
In a month, meanwhile, the number of retiring baby boomers roughly equals the population of Anaheim, Calif.; and in a year it will be about equal to the population of Connecticut.
Where Seniors Move
Top Ten lists of the best places to retire are as common as graying boomers at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Sun Belt cities typically dominate the rankings, but the results can be startling. The Center for Secure Retirement’s list of 10 “Best U.S. Cities for Seniors 2011” includes Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Newark.
In their writings on retirement trends, Frey and John K. McIlwain, Senior Resident Fellow/J. Ronald Terwilliger Chair for Housing at the Urban Land Institute, have spotlighted Raleigh and Austin as new meccas for retirees where senior populations grew at the fastest rate in the last decade. Raleigh’s senior population grew by 60 percent; Austin’s by 53 percent.
“One of the things a lot of seniors are doing is moving to places where they see a lot of services,” McIlwain said. “They just want to be close to all that educational opportunity, cultural events and sports activity.”
Raleigh and Austin feature topnotch universities: North Carolina State is located in Raleigh and Duke and the University of North Carolina are just down Tobacco Road, I-40, actually. Austin is home to the University of Texas. Both cities have strong technology sectors that attracted younger boomers who are now moving into retirement.
“The word is out in New York and New Jersey that the Carolinas have become the new Florida,” said Mitchell Silver, planning director for the city of Raleigh. “The weather is better, taxes are better and you can really get an affordable house here and a better quality of life.”
The Carolinas, North and South, are centers of the “halfback” movement — retirees who move to Florida from the North, decide it’s not for them and move halfway back.
“We see it all the time here,” said Ray Larcher, executive vice president of the Raleigh Regional Association of REALTORS®. “A lot of them go to the western part of our state, which is mountainous and cooler than Florida.”
“To me, Austin’s rapid growth in seniors is indicative of a sea change in the fundamental drivers of where seniors move,” said Ryan Robinson, planning director for the city of Austin. “Today, seniors want to live in vibrant urban communities, close to universities and libraries and entertainment, and maybe close to grandchildren, too.”
In 2010, Money Magazine ranked Durham, Raleigh’s smaller sister city, as the Best Place to Retire in the Country. Austin ranked ninth. The ratings were based in large part on lifelong learning programs for seniors. Duke and Texas have two of the largest and most prestigious Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) programs in the country. The Bernard Osher Foundation supports 117 lifelong learning programs for 50 plus adults at 117 colleges and universities all over the country.
“We typically get 150 to 200 new members a year,” said Gary Crites, director of the Duke OLLI program. “By far and away the majority of people in our program are transplants from the North and in many cases the Northeast and people moving down here to be near their kids who are employed at Research Triangle Park or one of the universities.”
The world-class teaching hospitals at Duke and UNC are another attraction for baby boomers retiring to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. In a Consumer Federation of the Southeast poll of boomers aged 47 to 65, 96 percent said Quality of Healthcare was their most important issue in making decisions about where to retire. Interestingly, only 47 percent said Educational Opportunities.
What Retirees Want
Retiring boomers are a generation apart from anything the country has ever experienced before. They are, after all, the gray-haired versions of the long-haired kids whose mantras in the 60s were “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll” and “Never Trust Anyone Over 30.”
“There’s still the Woodstock aspect for a lot of these people,” Frey said. “They never think of themselves as being like their parents.”
The boomer difference is evident in the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department’s senior programs. Raleigh’s program comprises 48 service clubs bringing seniors together at 22 locations to engage in mutual interests. Older silent generation seniors born during the Depression and World War II may be content to play bridge — not the younger boomers.
Steve White, manager of the Raleigh Parks Senior Adult Program, said the boomers favor the Senior Adventure Program, which takes them on ziplining, indoor sky diving and road biking excursions.
Two new centers exclusively for people aged 50 plus are under construction in Raleigh. “Younger boomers do not want to go to senior centers, so we don’t call these two centers senior centers, we call them active adult centers,” White said.
Chattanooga has been marketing itself to boomers as both a great place to retire and a great place to ease into retirement for about eight years. Its program, called Choose Chattanooga, works closely with Retire Tennessee, a state program. Between 2006 and 2009 about 5,500 boomers moved to Chattanooga, said Choose Chattanooga Director Linda Bennett.
Pre-retirement boomers Mike and Beth Harrell moved from Clearwater, Fla. to Chattanooga in 2006. They got to know the area when their daughter played soccer at Covenant College, located just outside Chattanooga on Lookout Mountain near the site of a bloody Civil War battle.
“Every time we would get in that car to go home we would just say, ‘Wow! Something’s going on here,’” Beth said. “There was just something totally different about Chattanooga that totally gripped us.”
The Harrells live in a downtown home two blocks from the Tennessee River. The owner of an advertising agency in Florida, Beth got her REALTORS’® license in Chattanooga. Her husband became a business consultant.
“We just reinvented ourselves,” she said. “We just love it here.”
Last year, Where to Retire magazine profiled Chattanooga as a Top Retirement Town, calling it “a clean, green city pulsating with energy. Retirees are finding Chattanooga is walkable, affordable and fun.” Retirees are hoping to walk to the grocery store, entertainment and activities; not get into their cars and drive to be active. Walkable neighborhoods, urban centers and active living communities are appealing to this generation.
A group of community leaders in Florida’s capital is launching Choose Tallahassee, an initiative based on internet ads recruiting active boomers. The Consumer Federation of the Southeast poll was a marketing tool for Choose Tallahassee. Conducted in November, 2011, the poll surveyed 1,100 boomers who lived in the eastern U.S. outside Florida and said they were considering moving to another state when they retire.
The three most important factors in deciding where to retire, according to the Choose Tallahassee poll, were climate, cost of housing and quality of health care.
In the National Association of REALTORS® survey “Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers 2011,” the No. 1 reason boomers ages 55 to 64 gave for moving was to be closer to family and friends at 18 percent; followed by retirement, 15 percent; and job relocation, 15 percent.
“Especially among the older edge of baby boomers, what we’ve been seeing is that they have been staying in their homes a little longer than they did five years ago,” said NAR Economist Paul Bishop.
Marty Merzer, a Brooklyn native who was a star Miami Herald reporter for 30 years, is the Choose Tallahassee poster boy. He would be happy to be the last boomer to choose Tallahassee.
“We frankly wanted out of the rat race of being in a big urban area,” Merzer said. “Now that the family has brought us here, we really enjoy being here. Now that I’ve found this place I want to put up a gate, but you can’t do that.”
Merzer and his wife Marion chose Tallahassee because their grandson Solly, their daughter and son-in-law live here. Moving to a new city to be near family, especially grandchildren, is one of the most common reasons for retirement relocation.
“When our grandson was born that changed everything,” Merzer said. “He was a magnet.”
The Merzers are typical of the new breed of boomers who “retire,” but not really. He continues to work as a freelance writer; she got a job in Tallahassee as a policy analyst for the agency that oversees Florida’s state universities.
David Bruns, AARP Florida spokesman, said an estimated 18 million boomers are expected to relocate in retirement before the generation’s bubble bursts in 2029. “That’s a huge, huge potential economic force for any state or any city that attracts relocating boomers,” he said.
Some retirement analysts have identified a trend of suburban retirees moving out of their big empty nests into condos and apartments in the central city or suburban town centers offering them an array of services in compact, walkable neighborhoods. Many cities, including Milwaukee and Albany, N.Y., have worked hard to persuade retirees to move downtown.
Kyle Ezell, a planning professor at Ohio State University, noted in his book “Retire Downtown” that “ruppies” — retired urban people — live more active and healthier lives than suburban contemporaries, stimulated by the large number of choices available to them in downtown settings.
“Much has been written about the growing number of seniors who have moved from the suburbs to the cities; much of this is true and some of it is hyperbole,” McIlwain said. “The ‘empty nester phenomenon’ — the couple who sells their suburban home after the kids have moved out and buys a condo in the city is real and has been occurring though it is hard to quantify.”
As a result of economic stress, Bishop said, older boomers are staying in place a few years longer than people who retired before the recession scrambled retirement nest eggs. One option for a number of them, he said, is buying smaller second homes in vacation areas assuming those will be their ultimate retirement destinations.
Despite the economic uncertainty clouding the future for the vanguard of the “Silver Tsunami” boomers, Frey and Ezell are optimistic.
“I do think there’s a positive aspect to all this, even though the economy is down,” Frey said. “They’re going to be a real plus for a lot of communities.”