Updated 7 months ago
I recently gave a presentation to a group of college students taking part in a Leadership Florida program. The two things they learned that surprised them the most were the relative size of some of Florida’s economic sectors — agriculture is a much smaller part of the state’s economy than they thought; government is a much bigger piece — and the fact that there are more young people in the state than they thought.
Florida, deservedly, has a reputation as an older state. We’re among seven states with a median age over 40, and the percentage of our population over 65 (around 17%) is the highest in the country. Three Florida metropolitan areas — Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice, Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater — rank in the top 10 in the country in terms of the size of their 65-and-older populations.
But 21% of Florida’s population is under 19. That’s a lower percentage than in most states, but it reflects an under-19 population of about 4 million — a lot of young people.
The young part of Florida’s population is also a dynamic sector, as noted in the findings of a Brookings Institute study of three decades’ worth of U.S. Census data. The report — the “Uneven Aging and ‘Younging’ of America” — outlined how, due to the aging of the Baby Boomers, the population of those 45 and older in America is growing nearly 20 times as fast as the population under 45. Suburbs are aging more rapidly than cities, the report found, with communities in the Sun Belt having the fastest-growing senior populations. Those trends hold true across all states and metro areas.
No big surprises there. More interesting is the data on younger populations. The report found that there’s a “growing divide” between the areas experiencing gains in their younger populations and those experiencing losses.
The Brookings report identifies Florida as one of only 11 states with a 5% or greater increase in their under-45 populations in the past decade. Three Florida communities — Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Orlando-Kissimmee and Lakeland-Winter Haven — were among the top 10 areas in the country in the growth of their under-45 populations. Those numbers are significant because of Florida’s size — a 5% increase in a big state like ours represents a lot of people.
What should the Brookings study tell us?
One, that a decade from now comfortable, undiverse retirement havens like the Villages (median age, 60) and Sarasota will start to face problems replacing their affluent Baby Boomer residents as they begin dying off.
Two, we need to look at some stories in the national media with a different perspective. The New York Times wrote a story, citing the Brookings study, suggesting that Florida was losing some of its allure for retiring seniors, more of whom are picking mid-South states like North Carolina and Tennessee as retirement destinations. Implicit in the story was the attitude that the universe had set Florida’s identity as retirement haven forever in stone and that demographic developments could only be considered against that destiny — “fewer retirees are coming to Florida, oh my.”
Forgive New Yorkers their population envy — Florida’s population will pass their state’s in a few years. What Florida shouldn’t do is to buy into their mindset. Some — particularly some in the development community — see such stories and cite them to begin pushing for more incentives to recruit retirees to Florida — on the theory that retirees make few demands on local government and are flush with cash that gets distributed into the local economy. The problem, of course, is that the kinds of jobs that retiree cash generates are largely low-wage, low-skill and low-aspiration.
Rather than seeing increased competition for retirees as some kind of threat, what the Brookings study suggests to me is that Florida’s economy is evolving, in fits and starts but healthily, away from retiree services. We’re moving, as Bill Carlson, who heads Tucker Hall communications agency in Tampa, puts it — toward a real economy defined by innovation and entrepreneurship.
In a world of diminished government resources, the last kind of incentives Florida ought to worry about is anything targeting seniors. We’ll continue to get our share, including long-term residents like myself who plan to age in place. What Florida needs to tend to is creating the kind of economic and educational infrastructure that will provide opportunity for a cohort of young people that — unlike in many states — is growing and dynamic.
The Brookings study captures a big part of Florida’s challenge: “Not surprisingly, the youth-gaining areas have more racially and ethnically diverse younger populations than those that are not attracting youth. This fact adds a cultural dimension to the inevitable competition that will arise over scarce public resources desired by age-related constituencies — for example, schools and child care versus age-care and senior services. Yet, the demographic future of the nation relies heavily on its youth and the areas where they reside, and the challenge in the decades ahead will be to balance their needs with the needs of Baby Boomers and seniors who are aging in place everywhere.”