Slower Growth of U.S. Retirement Destinations Linked to Economic Downturn

(March 2010) Population growth has slowed in U.S. retirement destinations, despite the large cohort of baby boomers who have begun to reach retirement age, according to new population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.1 Counties that should be seeing a rising influx of retirees have experienced slower growth—or even population loss—since the onset of the recession in 2007. The population slowdown is most pronounced in retirement magnets in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of recession-hit Florida.

Nationally, the U.S. population grew from 301.6 million in 2007 to 307 million in 2009, an average annual increase of 0.9 percent. Over that same period, the population in retirement-destination counties—those that have attracted large numbers of people ages 60 and older—increased 1.7 percent annually, to 42.7 million. But this higher growth rate in retirement-destination counties represents a significant slowdown from earlier years. Between 2000 and 2007, the population increase in retirement-destination counties averaged 3.1 percent annually, three times the average annual rate for the United States.

In addition, more retirement-destination counties are losing population than was the case earlier in the decade. Between 2007 and 2009, 126 of the 440 retirement-destination counties lost population, compared with 57 counties between 2000 and 2007 (see table). Moreover, 82 of these 126 retirement-destination counties had grown prior to 2007, but are now experiencing a population reversal. Many counties in the rest of the United States also lost population between 2007 and 2009, but the Census Bureau data show that more nonretirement counties are holding on to their population now than they did from 2000 to 2007.

Population Change in Retirement-Destination and Other U.S. Counties


United States Retirement-Destination Counties Nonretirement Destination Counties
Total Number of Counties 3,143 440 2,703
Average Annual Percentage Change in Population    
2000-2007 1.0 3.1 0.7
2007-2009 0.9 1.7 0.8
Counties That Lost Population
2000-2007 1,370 57 1,313
2007-2009 1,324 126 1,198

Note: Retirement-destination counties are counties where the number of residents ages 60 and older grew by 15 percent or more between 1990 and 2000 due to net in-migration.
Source: PRB analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau and Economic Research Service, USDA.

Northeast, Midwest Hardest Hit

The slowdown in population growth has occurred among retirement-destination counties across the country. In Florida, 33 of the 43 retirement-destination counties grew more slowly from 2007 to 2009 than they did earlier in the decade, while seven others lost population. In the West, 25 of the 98 retirement-destination counties that had grown between 2000 and 2007 lost people from 2007 to 2009, and 51 others experienced slower growth in the later period.

But the trend has disproportionately hit retirement destinations in the Northeast and Midwest, especially counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Although these two regions had only one-fifth of all retirement-destination counties nationwide, they had almost half of the counties that lost people between 2007 and 2009. Among the 63 retirement-destination counties in the Northeast and Midwest that had gained people from 2000 to 2007, 31 lost population and another 29 grew at slower rates between 2007 and 2009. Michigan and Wisconsin were particularly hard-hit: 16 of the 21 retirement counties in those two states that gained people from 2000 to 2007 lost population between 2007 and 2009.

Effects of the Recession

What is driving these trends? People approaching retirement age typically prefer to live in areas with lower housing costs, less traffic, and more natural attractions such as mountains or lakes.2 Many affluent boomers have already retired and moved away from crowded metropolitan areas. But for others, the recession has put retirement on hold. Loss of wealth associated with the drop in home values and stock market declines has kept many boomers attached to major metropolitan areas where most of the good jobs are located. In 2008, nearly half of retirement counties (47 percent) had unemployment rates of 6 percent or more, compared with 42 percent of counties outside of those areas. In addition, many baby boomers have been unable—or unwilling—to sell their primary homes because of the slumping housing market.3

With fewer retirees moving in, retirement destinations are losing a vital engine for population and economic growth. Many of these counties have populations with older age structures, so there are not many new births to sustain population growth. Between 2007 and 2009, natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) accounted for 36 percent of population growth in retirement counties, compared with 77 percent of growth in counties outside of those areas. Without a steady influx of new migrants, more retirement areas will face population declines in the near future.

New retirees are also a coveted demographic group for counties seeking to expand their tax base and create jobs. The newly retired often have money to spend and are relatively healthy compared with those in older age groups. They pay taxes, spend money on local goods and services, and volunteer their time and money for local causes.4 Their presence in a community creates additional population growth through an increased demand for housing, infrastructure, and services. It is likely that mobility rates among baby boomers will bounce back somewhat with improving economic conditions, but it could be a long time before we see rates return to their prerecession levels. More than likely, baby boomers will be cautious in their approach to the housing market and retirement moves in the coming decade.

Kelvin Pollard is senior demographer and Mark Mather is associate vice president, Domestic Programs, at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Data are based on PRB’s analysis of 2000-2009 county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and county classifications from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. The Census Bureau’s latest county estimates provide a preview of U.S. population trends in advance of the 2010 Census.
  2. David A. Plane, Christopher J. Henrie, and Marc J. Perry, “Migration Up and Down the Urban Hierarchy and Across the Life Course,” PNAS 102, no. 43 (2005): 15313-18.
  3. Luke Mullins, “The Future of Housing Demand: 4 Key Demographic Trends,” U.S. News and World Report, Feb. 1, 2010.
  4. Neelam C. Poudyala, Donald G. Hodges, and H. Ken Cordell, “The Role of Natural Resource Amenities in Attracting Retirees: Implications for Economic Growth Policy,” Ecological Economics 68 (2008): 240-48.