Part 1: Metropolitan Regions

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the growth of the senior population. Between 2000 and 2010, the senior population grew at a 15 percent pace, not 20 percent, as stated, increasing the senior population by 5 million, not 40.2 million. The previous version said that during this decade, the Census Bureau projects the senior population to increase by another 60 million, which is incorrect. Census forecasts that the total senior population will reach 60 million by the end of this decade. The corrected version appears below.

McIlwainSeniors1_2_351It has been widely reported that the population of seniors—i.e., those over 65—in the United States is growing rapidly. Less reported is the extraordinary acceleration in the rate of this growth. For instance, from 1990 to 2000 the senior population grew at 12 percent; over the next ten years, however, it grew at 15 percent to 40.2 million by 2010. During the current decade, the senior population is projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to grow by a stunning 55 percent, adding more than 20 million seniors to about 62 million in all.

This growth is significant nationally, of course, and is already figuring in national debates about health care and Social Security, among other topics. At the local level, though, the impact will be even greater. A major reason for this is the wide variation in the rate of growth of the senior population around the country.

Among the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the United States, the rate at which the senior population grew during the past decade ranged from a high of 50 to 60 percent down to a decline of 5 percent. While most regions did experience growth, three—Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Buffalo—actually saw their senior populations decline.

Among cities, the variation was even wider. In fact, in not quite half of the cities (43 percent) the senior population either stayed the same or declined. More will be said about this in Part 2 of this series.

The wide disparity in growth rates among metro regions means the benefits and challenges of a growing senior population will hit each metro region differently. Local officials and planners, developers, and others working in the housing and retail sectors, and those providing services for aging seniors, should pay close attention.

The Impact of Seniors

Ten metro regions with the
largest number of new seniors
1.Los Angeles199,000
2.New York City167,000
7.Washington, D.C127,000
8.Riverside, California98,000
table 1

Seniors benefit communities as well as present them with challenges. For instance, seniors are wealthier than any other age group despite the recession, their rates of homeownership are higher, they support the local economy, they pay local taxes, and they have a very low crime rate. 

They also are more politically conservative, and what they want in and need from a community is often quite different from what young families want and need. This is changing the local political climate in those suburbs where the growth of seniors is significant. Seniors are, for instance, pushing for more parks, open space, and libraries, often at the expense of funds for schools and playgrounds. While this is not in itself a problem as these are all desirable community amenities, in fiscally constrained suburbs where schools are overcrowded and teachers are being laid off, the educational needs of children are becoming a lower priority.

Growing senior populations also present challenges and opportunities for housing developers, retailers, and service providers. Seniors often have the time and experience to lead local efforts to block new infill development. However, they also have the means to buy property or rent new apartments in suburban town centers if they are able and choose to sell their large suburban homes.

To Where Are Seniors Moving?

The ten metro regions where the senior population grew the fastest between 2000 and 2010
1.Raleigh60 percent
2.Austin53 percent
3.Las Vegas50 percent
4.Houston39 percent
5.Dallas38 percent
6.Charlotte36 percent
7.Phoenix33 percent
8.Denver32 percent
9.Orlando29 percent
10.Riverside28 percent
table 2

So, where is the senior population growing the fastest?  The ten metro regions with the largest number of new seniors are as follows (table 1).

Absolute numbers, however, do not necessarily show where seniors may be having the greatest political and market impact. This is better indicated by the rate at which the senior population is growing. In other words, which communities are experiencing the fastest growth in their senior populations? 

For instance, while the number of new seniors in the New York City metro region was the second highest in the nation, the senior population grew at a rate of just 7 percent. Thus, its impact is likely to be less than that witnessed in, say, Raleigh, North Carolina, where the rate of growth was a surprising 60 percent. 

A fast rate of growth also indicates a region that attracted new seniors who migrated from other parts of the country. The census numbers, however, do not break down how much of this migration occurred before the housing crash; studies are showing that internal migration has slowed significantly since 2007, suggesting that these senior “hot spots” may have already cooled down.

Only four of the metro areas with the fastest-growing senior populations (table 2) were also among the fastest growing in absolute numbers of seniors—Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and Riverside; these clearly have been senior magnets. The question remains, however, whether the recession and the housing market crash will slow or stop this trend in many of these markets.

From Where Are Seniors Moving?

Where did those seniors who moved during the period from 2000 to 2010 come from? Following are the ten metro regions where the senior population declined or grew most slowly over the past decade. Note that in each of these regions where the senior population grew, it did so at a rate well below the national rate of 20 percent, suggesting that seniors were moving out of the area

Ten metro regions where the senior population declined


St. Louis and New York City (tie)7 percent
2.Detroit6 percent
3.Milwaukee4 percent
4.Tampa4 percent
5.Philadelphia4 percent
6.Providence1 percent
7.Cleveland1 percent
8.Buffalo-3 percent
9.Pittsburgh-5 percent
10.New Orleans-5 percent
table 3

This list (table 3) confirms that during at least the early part of the last decade, seniors were moving from the cold Northeast and old industrial metropolitan areas to the warmer climes of the South, West, and Southwest. The New Orleans region is, of course, an exception, and the outward migration from there is largely—though not solely—attributable to Hurricane Katrina.

Another exception is Tampa. Its low rate of growth mirrors Miami’s 8 percent rate of growth in the senior population. Florida did attract many seniors, only they moved to Orlando and Jacksonville instead, which had growth rates of 29 and 31 percent, respectively. And even though it would seem that many seniors moved away from the New York City metro area, it still added more seniors than anywhere else in the country but Los Angeles.

Final Caveat

Once again, in looking at these numbers and lists, keep in mind that the last decade spans two quite distinct periods—the housing boom through 2006 and the housing bust and recession from 2007 on. It may well be the case that the trends of the early years in the decade are obscuring the impact of the crash, and that the latter part of the decade may be a better indicator of what will be experienced in the years ahead. Such is the challenge of reading trends in uncertain times like the present.

See, Seniors—In Which Cities Are They Living?

ULI–the Urban Land Institute