Baby Boomer Retirements Bring Challenges to Cities and Localities

In some places, the aging boomer population could have a profound impact on politics, economics.

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The baby boomer population is edging into retirement. But is the United States ready?

The Census Bureau defines baby boomers as Americans born between 1946 and 1964, meaning that the oldest boomers are 66 and entering retirement age. But as the beginning of this mass retirement coincides with the country's greatest economic crisis in decades, the nation is asking itself whether it will have the institutional capacity to handle a flood of 60- and 70-somethings. Roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population consists of baby boomers, but that proportion can vary widely from place to place. Census data suggests that cities with the most boomers to accommodate are in the eastern United States, led by Portland, Maine, where baby boomers make up nearly 30 percent of the population. Meanwhile, those cities with the smallest boomer populations are in the West, clustered in Texas, Utah, and California. [See a slide show of the 10 cities with the highest concentrations of baby boomers.]

On a national level, perhaps the biggest concern about keeping up with the nation's aging boomers is that of entitlements. Projections of a national debt spiraling ever upward have prompted politicians to consider cuts to benefits for Social Security and Medicare, two entitlement programs that cater specifically to an aging population. The boomer population will very likely have a loud voice in those negotiations, as it has proven itself a political force to be reckoned with. Most boomers are eligible for the American Association of Retired Persons, open to Americans 50 and older. With 40 million members, AARP is one of the largest and most powerful special-interest groups in the nation. It was the sixth-highest spender on lobbying in 2010, laying out nearly $22.1 million in advocacy surrounding dozens of bills, particularly those dealing with health care-related issues. [See a slide show of the 10 cities with the lowest concentration of baby boomers.]

But local politics and programs are also of particular consequence to the boom generation, particularly as the budget fight that rages on Capitol Hill and in many states also affects municipalities and counties. According to a June report by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for programs benefiting aging Americans, financial and funding shortages are the No. 1 challenge that communities have to meeting the needs of elderly Americans. A survey of 1,459 municipalities and counties nationwide showed that fiscal difficulties were the top obstacle to meeting the needs of older Americans. One major way in which that played out was in a decline in property tax relief for older adults. Seventy-two percent of surveyed local governments provided this in 2005, compared to just 54 percent in 2009.

Still, many cities have weathered their fiscal woes admirably, in terms of the services they maintained for their aging populations through the recession. Jo Reed, a senior program manager at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, says that in 2010, many cities had "pretty much the same level of programs, services, and policies that seemed to particularly benefit older adults" that they had in 2005. But those systems won't be sustainable for long: "Given this tremendous dramatic growth in the older population, that's just not going to be enough." [Read about the 10 cities with the highest and lowest real incomes.]

Two areas that may particularly suffer are transportation and housing, which the survey showed to be localities' second- and third-biggest challenges to planning for an aging population. Three-quarters of communities have not yet begun to provide mobility management services to older adults, helping them to understand their transit options and how to use them. And subsidized housing availability benefiting older adults slipped to 63 percent in 2010 from 70 percent in 2005. Though these concerns may not currently be pressing concerns to many boomers, particularly those on the younger end of that generation, Allen says that such programs must be improved in many places in order to accommodate the coming wave of senior citizens.

According to a U.S. News analysis of census data, these are the 10 metropolitan areas (population 300,000 or greater) with the largest proportions of baby boomers.

Metro Area Population Boomer Population Boomer %
Portland-South Portland-Biddeford, Maine 516,826 154,375 29.9%
Santa Rosa-Petaluma, Calif. 472,102 138,980 29.4%
Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa. 562,963 163,965 29.1%
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Fla. 536,357 155,219 28.9%
Pittsburgh, Pa. 2,354,957 681,248 28.9%
Charleston, W.Va. 304,298 87,978 28.9%
Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, Tenn.-Va. 302,887 87,395 28.9%
Canton-Massillon, Ohio 407,897 117,453 28.8%
York-Hanover, Pa. 428,937 122,714 28.6%
Rochester, N.Y. 1,035,566 294,196 28.4%
 These are the 10 metro areas whose populations have the lowest shares of baby boomers. 

Metro Area Population Boomer Population Boomer %
Provo-Orem, Utah 554,965 82,473 14.9%
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas 741,152 129,309 17.4%
Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood, Texas 379,231 74,211 19.6%
Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas 396,371 77,838 19.6%
Ogden-Clearfield, Utah 542,642 112,185 20.7%
Visalia-Porterville, Calif. 429,668 89,535 20.8%
Fayetteville, N.C. 360,355 75,848 21.0%
Salt Lake City, Utah 1,130,293 238,262 21.1%
El Paso, Texas 751,296 160,353 21.3%
Fresno, Calif. 915,267 196,902 21.5%
 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2009 American Community Survey. "Boomer Population" counts include all people listed as ages 45 through 64 in the 2009 survey.

It should be noted that these numbers can be misleading. That a city has a large share of boomers does not necessarily mean that boomers are flocking there; rather, it can also mean that people from other age groups, particularly younger people, are leaving for other places, according to William Frey, demographer at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Brookings Institution. Likewise, he says, cities with small shares of boomers may also have large shares of young adults and youths. In the McAllen and Provo metro areas, for example, people 17 and under make up more than one third of the population, compared to barely one- quarter for the nation as a whole.

Of course, those cities that have small shares of baby boomers among their populations are not exempt from facing the challenges of impending demographic shifts. According to a 2009 study by the Brookings Institution, states in the West are projected to have the fastest growth of the population age 65 and older from 2010 to 2020. Furthermore, the study found that the metro areas surrounding McAllen, Salt Lake City, and Ogden are among the 20 cities that experienced the fastest growth of the population ages 55 to 64 in recent years. Meanwhile, many of the states represented among the cities with the most boomers--Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, and New York, for example--are projected to have some of the slowest growth in senior citizen populations over the next decade.