(June 2013) Before the recession, many baby boomers—Americans born between 1946 and 1964—were moving away from densely populated cities in favor of retirement destinations with lower housing costs, less traffic, and more natural amenities.1 But in recent years, more baby boomers have stayed close to home as they approach retirement age, according to PRB’s analysis of Census Bureau data.
In the aftermath of the recession, U.S. mobility rates dropped to their lowest levels in more than 60 years.2 Fewer jobs meant fewer opportunities for long-distance moves, and the share of people who were moving from one county to another fell sharply, from 5.3 percent in 2005 to 3.5 percent in 2011. Among those ages 55 to 64, intercounty migration rates fell from 3.1 percent to 2.0 percent during this period. Since 2011, the national intercounty migration rate has rebounded slightly, to 3.9 percent, but this increase has been driven by higher migration rates among adults under age 55. For older baby boomers nearing retirement age, migration rates have remained at low levels.3
The reasons for the decline in migration among baby boomers are unclear. For some—especially those in younger age groups—the drop may be linked to declining job opportunities, or a reluctance to move away from metropolitan areas where most jobs are located. Some baby boomers have delayed retirement to offset declining home values or stock market assets, but this may be relatively rare.4 Others may be reluctant to move because they want to live closer to their families and friends. Whatever the reasons, the slowdown in migration has resulted in some noticeable shifts in population growth across states and counties.
Slower Growth in Retirement Magnets
Sunbelt states that attracted large in-flows of baby boomers during the 2000s have seen the number of new migrants dwindle in recent years. Similarly, sending states and communities that were losing baby boomers have seen the out-flow taper off.5
Arizona, Florida, and Nevada were the three most attractive states for boomers between 2000 and 2007. But each of these states saw a marked slowdown in boomer population growth since the onset of the recession. Between 2007 and 2012, Nevada’s growth trend reversed, from 2.3 percent increase per year from 2000 to 2007 to a loss of 1,000 baby boomers (-0.03 percent change per year) between 2007 and 2012. In both Florida and Arizona, growth dropped from a 1.4 percent annual rate of increase from 2000 to 2007 to 0.5 percent between 2007 and 2012. Eleven other states (Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington) also saw a reversal in their baby-boom population, having seen growth from 2000 to 2007 but decline from 2007 to 2012. Nationwide, the baby-boom population declines slightly each year due to mortality, especially among the oldest baby boomers born in the 1940s. International immigration can also affect national, state, and local trends in the baby-boom population, since these data do not distinguish those born in the United States or other countries.
Areas with the greatest baby-boomer population losses between 2000 and 2007, such as Massachusetts, North Dakota, and the District of Columbia, have seen their losses slow.6 Rates in other areas with losses in the early 2000s—California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey—remained virtually unchanged from 2007 to 2012, while Alaska, Michigan, and Rhode Island lost baby boomers at a faster rate from 2007 to 2012 than before the recession.
County-level estimates show a similar pattern.7 In Arizona, Pima County switched from a net-inflow (+13,290) from 2000 to 2010, to a net outflow (-570) from 2010 to 2012. In Nevada, Lyon County also switched from a net inflow (+3,600) from 2000 to 2010, to a net outflow (-50) from 2010 to 2012. The flow to Clark County, Nevada, slowed to a trickle, from growth of more than 61,000 from 2000 to 2010 to an increase of fewer than 1,000 between 2010 and 2012, or less than one-tenth of the average annual flow. Baby boomers continue to leave California. Only two of California’s 58 counties experienced a net increase in baby boomers from 2010 to 2012. In Florida, almost all counties experienced slower growth or a reversal in growth since 2010. Citrus County is a key example, with a 5.3 percent annual increase in boomers from 2000 to 2010 and a considerably slower 0.8 percent annual increase from 2010 to 2012. In Massachusetts, Suffolk County (Boston area) showed the biggest turnaround, with the baby-boom population declining by 1.3 percent per year from 2000 to 2010 and growing 0.2 percent from 2010 to 2012.
As baby boomers reached retirement age, many were expected to move to more affordable retirement destinations, especially in the southern United States.8 However, many of the counties with the sharpest declines in population are traditional retirement destinations located in Sunbelt states. Between 2000 and 2007, the population in retirement counties—those with historically high rates of in-migration among those 60 and older—increased by 3.1 percent—three times the rate of the United States as a whole (see table). But between 2007 and 2012, growth slowed to 1.4 percent per year, while annual population growth outside of those counties increased slightly, from 0.7 percent to 0.8 percent. Many retirement counties have attracted a wide range of international and domestic migrants, so the declining population growth in these counties cannot be attributed solely to baby boomers. However, in some areas, especially Florida and the Southwest, baby boomers have played a key part in the population boom-bust cycle.
Population Change in U.S. Counties, by Type
|Annual % Change
|Annual % Change
* Counties where the number of residents 60 and older grew by 15 percent or more between 1990 and 2000 due to in-migration.
Source: PRB analysis of population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Implications for Rural Areas
The recent decline in migration rates among baby boomers is significant because they were expected to jump start economic growth in rural America.9 Many rural areas, especially parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, have been losing population for several decades.10 Between 2000 and 2010, there were 1,094 counties that lost population, compared with 689 counties during the 1990s. An influx of baby boomers could help provide economic relief to areas experiencing population loss by boosting the demand for services, housing, and transportation. An increase in population can help create a larger tax base and bring more federal dollars to distressed communities. Since the baby-boom cohort is highly educated, a net increase in boomers could also help plug the brain drain in many rural areas, which is struggling to hold onto to young adults who are drawn to educational and employment opportunities elsewhere.11
Baby boomers alone cannot offset the flood of people moving away from rural America. Rural (nonmetropolitan) counties recently recorded their first-ever population loss, and many struggle with aging populations and record too few births to sustain population growth. However, an influx of baby boomers—especially those with substantial assets—could help pare the losses in rural communities and set the stage for future population and economic growth.12
Mark Mather is associate vice president of Domestic Programs at PRB. Beth Jarosz is a research associate in Domestic Programs.
- Mark Mather and Kelvin Pollard, “U.S. Baby Boomers Moving Out, Minorities Moving In,” accessed at www.prb.org/Articles/2008/usbabyboomers.aspx.
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Mover Rate Reaches Record Low, Census Bureau Reports,” accessed at www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/mobility_of_the_population/cb11-193.html on June 10, 2013.
- U.S. Census Bureau, Geographical Mobility/Migration reports based on the Current Population Survey for years 2000-2012. Data are compiled for persons who lived in a different home the prior year and are reported by age of mover and geographic location of move (same county, different county, different state, etc.) Data referenced here reflect persons who lived in a different county the prior year.
- Alan L. Gustman, Thomas L. Steinmeier, and Nahid Tabatabai, “What the Stock Market Decline Means for the Financial Security and Retirement Choices of the Near-Retirement Population,” NBER Working Paper No. 15435.
- PRB tracked state-level trends in the baby-boom population by compiling population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau for ages 36-54 in 2000, ages 43-61 in 2007, and ages 48-66 in 2012, and comparing the size of the population in each state at each time period.
- Louisiana also experienced population loss, but the state’s population change between 2000-2007 was largely affected by Hurricane Katrina and Rita.
- To estimate the flow of baby boomers at the county level, PRB compiled population estimates for ages 38-52 in 2000, ages 48-62 in 2010, and ages 50-64 in 2012. County-level population estimates by single year of age are not available for 2007.
- John Cromartie and Peter Nelson, “Baby Boom Migration and its Impact on Rural America,” accessed at www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err79.aspx, on June 10, 2013.
- John Cromartie and Peter Nelson, “Baby Boom Migration and Its Impact on Rural America.”
- Mark Mather, Kelvin Pollard, and Linda A. Jacobsen, “First Results from the 2010 Census,” PRB Reports on America (July 2011), accessed at www.prb.org/Publications/ReportsOnAmerica/2011/census-2010.aspx.
- Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, “The Rural Brain Drain,” accessed at http://chronicle.com/article/The-Rural-Brain-Drain/48425/, on June 10, 2013.
- John Cromartie, “Nonmetro Areas as a Whole Experience First Period of Population Loss,” accessed at www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-may/nonmetro-areas-as-a-whole-experience-first-period-of-population-loss.aspx, on June 10, 2013.