Migration and Geographic Distribution

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If a survey asked respondents what they knew about the geographic distribution and migration patterns of older people in the United States, two observations would be frequently repeated. First, with respect to distribution, respondents would comment on the concentration of older people in Florida. Second, regarding migration, most would report something about retirement migration, with older people moving from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt. While not incorrect, these responses are very imprecise and miss a great deal of what is interesting about these issues. In fact, there is widespread misunderstanding about which regions of the United States have the oldest populations and about how uncommon retirement migration really is.

Geographic distribution

Focusing on the geographic distribution of the older population at the state level, two different questions can be asked. First, which states have the largest number of older people? The answer to this question is quite unremarkable: the states with the largest total populations tend to have the largest populations of persons age sixty-five and over. In 2000, the four largest states (California, Texas, New York, and Florida) contained 31 percent of the total U.S. population and 31 percent of the elderly population. More than half (52 percent) of all senior citizens live in the nine largest states (the four listed above plus Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey). Among the nine states with the largest populations of older people, only three are in the Sunbelt.

The more interesting question about variations across states concerns the proportion of the population that is age sixty-five and over. For the United States as a whole, 12.4 percent of the population was age 65+ in 2000. But only two states (Indiana and Tennessee) had exactly this percentage of their populations in this age category. The state with the oldest population was, of course, Florida, which stands out with 17.6 percent of its population age 65+. But the other states with especially old populations were not states that attract a lot of retired migrants. In 2000, seven of the ten states with the oldest populations were in the Northeast or Midwest (Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Maine, South Dakota, and Connecticut), while three were in the South (Florida, West Virginia, and Arkansas) and none were in the West. At the opposite end of the distribution, the states with the youngest populations were Alaska (5.7 percent age 65+) and Utah (8.5 percent age 65+). All fourteen states in which older people made up less than 12 percent of the population were in the West and the South. As suggested by the above discussion, the oldest regions of the United States were the Northeast (13.8 percent) and Midwest (12.8 percent), and the youngest were the West (11.0 percent) and South (12.4 percent).

Excluding the extremes (Florida and Alaska), the proportion of older adults in state populations ranged from 8.5 percent to 15.6 percent in 2000. Moving to areas smaller than states, however, much greater variations are apparent. Some counties could be classified as "gerontic enclaves." In two counties (one in Florida and one in North Dakota), over one-third of the population was age 65+ in 2000, and there were fifty-seven counties in which over one-fourth of the population is in this age group. Half of these counties were in Florida, South Dakota, and North Dakota. The three counties where less than 3 percent of the population was sixty-five and older were in Georgia and Alaska. Clearly, more than temperature is determining the proportion of older adults in various geographic locations.

Why does age distribution vary across areas?

Four factors determine the proportion of elderly people in a population: past death rates, past birth rates, past in-migration rates, and past out-migration rates. Of these four factors, the least important is death rates. Although there are some variations in death rates across states, these variations are not very large and they play a very insignificant role in determining age distributions. Fertility patterns have a larger effect on the age composition of a populationhigh fertility rates are associated with younger age distributions. The intuitive notion that higher fertility leads to a larger proportion of children in the population, and consequently a smaller proportion of older people, is correct. This relationship between birth rates and age structure helps to explain why Utah, with the highest fertility rate of any state, ranks forty-ninth in proportion of older adults. Seven of the ten highest fertility states are among the fifteen youngest states. But there are exceptions. Arizona, for example, has the second highest fertility rate of any state, but also has an above average proportion of older age. This suggests that effects of migration on age distribution must also be considered.

In-migration and out-migration do not necessarily alter the age distribution of a county or state. If migration rates did not vary by age, then migration would affect the size of the population but not the age composition. However, migration rates almost always do vary with age. Outmigration from an area is predictably higher for young people than for older people. The tendency of young adults to migrate at higher rates than older people has been true across time and across cultures. In other words, there is almost no exception to the pattern of a declining propensity to migrate after the young adult years. Recent patterns of migration in the United States are consistent with this broad generalization. Between March of 1999 and March of 2000 it was eight times as likely for someone between twenty and twenty-four years of age to change place of residence as it was for someone age sixty-five or over (35.2 percent vs. 4.4 percent).

States (or counties) in which out-migration exceeds in-migration over a sustained period of time tend to have relatively old populations. Older people in these areas tend to age in place, while a disproportionate number of younger people move out. In recent decades, the areas that have experienced substantial net outmigration have been concentrated in the farm states of the Midwest and the declining industrial states of the Northeast. These two regions, as noted above, are the regions with the highest concentration of older people.

If a disproportionate number of migrants are young, one should anticipate that areas with substantial net in-migration would tend to have relatively young populations. This is the general pattern, and accounts for the below average proportion of older adults in the Sunbelt (which has gained population through migration in recent decades). But there is one major exception to this pattern: Florida. Florida has been such a magnet for older retirees who move out of the Northeast, that the in-migration rate for older people has exceeded that of younger people. Arizona and Oregon also have been magnets for older migrants, so despite high levels of total in-migration their populations are not especially young (Arizona ranked 22nd in percentage of population 65+ in 2000, and Oregon ranked 25th).

Retirement migration

As noted above, most older people age in place, and retirement migration is not a common experience. In any given year, only about 1 percent of the older population moves from one state to another (by comparison, about 6 percent of people in their twenties make an interstate move each year). Nevertheless, researchers have studied the motivations of those who move around the time of their retirement. Older migrants tend to mention several considerations as being important in deciding where to relocate. Compared to younger people, they express less concern about employment opportunities and more concern about cost of living. Thus, areas with low taxes and a low cost of services are, other things being equal, particularly attractive to retirees. Also important are location-specific amenities, such as warm weather, attractive environments (e.g., seashores or mountains), and good health care services and facilities. Areas that combine several of these attractive features are magnets for retirement migrants.

A good deal of attention has been given to the economic impact that retirement migrants have on the areas they move into. The conclusion has been that older migrants provide an economic boom to their destination communities. Those who make a retirement move tend to be healthy, married, and have above average incomes. They thus contribute to the local community through their consumption and the taxes they pay, and they do not compete for the jobs that they help to create. Further, they do not draw heavily on local public service expenditures, such as schools. The health care expenses they have add to, rather than drain, local resources because they are paid for from Medicare, from other insurance policies, and out-of-pocket. Based on these findings, some argue that developing policies to attract retirees may be a good strategy for promoting economic growth in a community. Others note, however, that increasing the percentage of senior citizens in a community may alter local politics and decrease public support for public schools and other public services that older people seldom use.

Why people move in later life

Theories of why people voluntarily move start with the plausible assumption that individuals are motivated by a desire to improve (or maintain or minimize loss of) their quality of life. Job-related moves become less common in later life, while three other reasons for migration become more important. One reason is the desire to improve the quality of one's physical environment. With incomes coming from social security, pensions, and investments, older people have greater freedom than younger people to put a high priority on the physical amenities of potential destination communities. Moves for lifestyle reasons characterize recent retirees who move to a warmer climate or to an area with greater recreational opportunities. Studies find that retirement migrants often plan these moves long in advance and vacation at their destination community for several years before actually making the permanent move. Those who fit this description are often relatively affluent, healthy, and married. As noted above, these are the older migrants that some retirement communities actively seek because they bring economic resources into the community. Still, it is important to remember that most older people age in place retirement migration to the Sunbelt is the exception.

A second reason for moving in later life is to improve the social environment by locating closer to children, grandchildren, or other kin. The motivation to move in order to increase potential social support is frequently stimulated by a life course transition that increases vulnerability, such as widowhood or declining health. Compared to those moving to improve physical amenities, people moving to strengthen support networks tend to be older, unmarried, and physically frail. An interesting illustration of these two types of moves is provided by comparing the stream of migrants from New York to Florida with the counterstream of migrants from Florida to New York. Those moving to Florida, compared to those moving back to New York, are more often married, healthy, young-old (6575 years old), have a high income, and live independently. The plausible explanation for why vulnerable older people leave Florida to return to their former place of residence in the Northeast is that they are seeking to be nearer children and other kin who can provide support.

The third type of late life move, often involuntary and of a short distance, is to an assisted-living facility or nursing home. An increasing functional dependency and inability to live independently precede these generally dreaded moves. Making the decision to move to a nursing home is generally difficult, being the only choice left after other options have been exhausted. Moving to a nursing home is often the final move that an individual will make.


Snowbirds is the term coined to identify older people who, like some birds, leave their usual residence in the north to settle in warmer settings during the winter. Reliable statistics on the magnitude of seasonal migration do not exist, but it is known that Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California have large populations of temporary residents during the winter. As cold temperatures arrive in October and November in the northern states, the snowbirds head south to live in RVs, mobile homes, apartments, condominiums, and second houses in the warmer climates. Additional snowbirds move from CanadaStatistics Canada has estimated that a quarter of a million Canadians reside in Florida during the winter months. These cyclical migrants between the North and the South may make the same journey between their summer and winter residences for many years.

Studies of snowbirds in their winter communities have found that these migrants tend to resemble retirement migrants in several ways they are young-old, married, healthy, and financially well-off. Although seasonal migrants do not tend to become involved in the larger communities of their winter residence, they do generate distinctive enclaves within their travel parks or condominium complexes. Life in these enclaves is characterized by a high degree of sociability, activity, and equality. The culture that develops in these subcommunities allows the snowbirds to feel at home, rather than to function as tourists or vacationers. Some snowbirds become permanent residents of their winter communities, but most do not.


In any particular year, older people are much less likely than younger adults to change their place of residence. Further, the annual proportion of people age sixty-five and over who make an interstate move has not increased since the midtwentieth century, and in 2000 was only about 1 percent. The typical experience of older people is to age in the same community and in the same house that they lived in prior to reaching old age. When older people do make interstate moves, they often follow well-established streams of migration to particular destinations. Retirement migrants from the Northeast tend to settle in the South Atlantic states; those from the Midwest more often head to states in the Southwest. These retirement migrants tend to have a positive impact on the communities they move into.

Peter Uhlenberg

See also Aging in Place; Immigration; Living Arrangements; Retirement Communities.


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