Older Populations Soar as Age Trend Accelerates

As senior concentrations rise, places with more younger people may provide better growth and income.

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The aging of America is hitting home with a vengeance. According to a report by the Brookings Institution based on U.S. Census data, the nation's 45-plus population grew 18 times faster than younger populations from 2000 to 2010. The impact of aging baby boomers and the follow-on "baby bust" generations fueled the disparity, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Washington think tank that wrote the report.

"The specter of a rapidly aging society is now a front-and-center issue for policymakers, politicians, and boomers themselves," the report said. "All are concerned with the future costs of medical care, retirement programs, and a host of public and private services that must be adapted to an older population."

[See The 10 Cities With the Oldest Population.]

More than half the states (28) actually lost people in the under-45 age group between 2000 and 2010. Frey said that was the finding that surprised him the most, and sets up big challenges for future work-force adequacy and local economic growth.

For someone contemplating retirement, Frey said in an interview, the combination of lower living costs and decent social services might still lead retirees to consider living in some communities hit by lower growth and a loss of younger people. But such places might not be so attractive in future decades, he said. "That's from an individual standpoint," he added. "From a government and policy standpoint, we're going to need to figure out how to take care of that 'left behind' older population. . . . This is where we really see a clear future of the hollowing out of the labor force."

Between 2000 and 2010, here were the national growth rates of different age groups:

14 and younger: 1.6 percent

15 to 24: 11.3 percent

25 to 34: 2.9 percent

35 to 44: minus 9.0 percent

45 to 54: 19.5 percent

55 to 64: 50.3 percent

65 and older: 15.1 percent

The aging of America, the report notes, is not occurring evenly across the country. Eastern and "rust belt" areas are aging rapidly and also losing their younger populations, creating serious challenges to their economies and tax structures. Traditional Sunbelt retirement meccas also are aging but many have continued to attract younger residents, especially those areas with strong immigration gains.

"In some areas," the report said, "the aging of boomers and their parents will be mitigated by youthful gains due to movement from other parts of the country, immigration, or higher fertility. While the tax bases may increase in such areas, so will some of the public service needs of children and young families."

[See Why Working Longer Won't Close Retirement Shortfalls.]

"In other areas," it cautioned, "the loss or slow growth of the youth population will be associated with 'brain drain,' reduced tax revenue, and a shortage of service workers, such as those involved with health services and assisted living for rapidly aging populations."

In many respects, Frey noted, the aging of America has become the aging of its suburbs. Suburbs hold about 70 percent of metropolitan-area populations. Long regarded as home to growing families with SUVs, the nation's suburbs are graying rapidly. Suburbs that fail to hold onto younger residents will be especially stressed, according to the report, "The Uneven Aging and 'Younging' of America":

"Suburbs that are losing these younger segments of the population face stark challenges in how their institutions, infrastructure, and social services can adapt in communities that were built to accommodate youth," it said. In the suburbs of America's 100 largest metropolitan areas, 34 had declines in their numbers of children under the age of 15 and 38 showed absolute declines in their 45 and under populations.

In the near term, the most avid readers of Brookings' work might be 2012 election strategists. Persons aged 45 and older are now, for the first time, a majority of the voting-age population. "The political clout of older Americans will be even more magnified if the traditional higher turnout of this group continues," the report said, "and as the competition for resources between the old and the young becomes more intense."

[See How to Tune Up Your Retirement Plan.]

Here are the nation's top and bottom 10 suburban areas, in terms of how much their under-45 populations changed between 2000 and 2010:

Suburbs with Greatest Growth and Decline in Population Under Age 45, 2000-2010

Rank Suburbs of Metro Area Under 45 45 and older  
    % change 2000-2010 2010 share of population  
  Greatest Growth: Under Age 45    
1 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 52% 37.1%
2 Provo-Orem, UT 50% 22.5%
3 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 46% 35.6%
4 Austin-Round Rock, TX 45% 33.6%
5 Boise City-Nampa, ID 39% 34.1%
6 McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX 36% 26.5%
7 Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 36% 52.2%
8 San Antonio, TX 35% 38.2%
9 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 30% 33.6%
10 Raleigh-Cary, NC 27% 36.2%
  Greatest Decline: Under Age 45      
1 Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA -14% 47.9%
2 Pittsburgh, PA -12% 48.2%
3 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA -11% 40.8%
4 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY -11% 46.6%
5 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH -10% 45.3%
6 Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA -9% 44%
7 Syracuse, NY -9% 44.2%
8 Rochester, NY -9% 45%
9 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI -9% 42.4%
10 Springfield, MA -8% 44.2%

Twitter: @PhilMoeller