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Baby boom migration tilts toward rural America.


As Americans age, their likelihood of migrating, their reasons for moving, and their destination choices shift dramatically. Baby boomers--born between 1946 and 1964--are entering a stage when moves to rural locales increase, especially to areas with scenic amenities and lower housing costs.

"Boomers" have already demonstrated an affinity for moving to rural and small-town destinations, compared with older or younger cohorts. They led a short-lived rural "rebound" in the early 1990s despite being at an age when career-oriented motivations strongly influence migration decisions.

Today's 83 million boomers, ranging from age 45 to 63, represent a fourth of the total U.S. population. There has never been such a large share of the workforce approaching retirement. By comparison, 42 million were age 45 to 63 in 1990. Boomers are now poised to significantly increase rural and small-town elderly populations by 2020, with major social and economic implications for their chosen destinations.

Migration Patterns Change With Age

Each individual or family makes unique migration decisions, but commonalities exist at different life stages that affect the number of people moving and their destination choices. Migration rates for children (who mostly accompany parental moves) decline to very low levels during high school, and then rise precipitously. Most migration occurs when people are in their twenties, as they finish college, make initial career decisions, serve in the military, form families, or simply act out of a sense of restlessness. Urban destinations dominate among young singles seeking jobs, social opportunities, and creative cultural environments.

Migration rates decrease steadily and shift geographically through a person's working-age years. Individuals and families settle down as career decisions become more firm. Married couples with children place a higher premium on residential space, better schools, feelings of personal safety, and other qualities associated with suburban settings.

As they age toward retirement, Americans are much less prone to move than in their youth, but those that do are much more likely to move to the countryside. Many "empty nest" couples begin seeking leisure and recreational opportunities, lower housing costs, and a slower pace of life. Quality-of-life considerations begin to replace child-rearing and employment-related factors in decisions about when and where to move. For older Americans, rural migration is highest early in the retirement process and declines sharply as health care needs increase.

Many people develop strong ties to particular places over an extended period, such as while vacationing or visiting family and friends. Thus, retirement-related migration may progress slowly over several years rather than occur as a discrete, one-time event. Couples often purchase a second home or simply visit the same location annually or on weekends with their children, then visit more often and for longer stretches as children leave home. Beginning in the 1990s, the Internet has greatly facilitated work from more remote locations and contributed to an increase in permanent moves to second-home destinations. Areas that are popular as recreation and tourist destinations are increasingly favored as permanent residences.

Baby Boomers Have Rural Ties Despite Suburban Upbringing

Baby boomers have followed well-established, age-related migration patterns, but at times have shown more of a preference for rural destinations than older and younger cohorts. Their early childhoods coincided with a massive wave of rural outmigration and suburbanization. Many of their parents had come of age in the countryside during the Depression and maintained rural connections while raising urban and suburban families. These hometown ties have had an enormous influence on the baby boomers' subsequent migration decisions.

As they entered young adulthood, baby boomers faced increased labor and housing market competition, due both to economic trends and the unprecedented size of their cohort. They responded demographically by postponing marriage and delaying childbearing. They responded geographically by migrating from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West in record numbers and increasing their migration into nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties. Overall, they still favored metro destinations as they aged through their twenties, but not as strongly as older or younger cohorts did.

The economic recessions of the 1980s hit rural areas harder than urban areas and contributed to a resurgence in rural out-migration. Urban migration surged for baby boomers in their late twenties and early thirties, especially to large metro centers that were regaining economic momentum lost in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, baby boomers again increased migration to rural areas, stimulating recreation-based economies and boosting population growth in the intermountain West, the southern Appalachians, the Upper Great Lakes, and other scenic locations.


In 1995, baby boomers were age 31-49 and still strongly career oriented. Much of their nonmetro migration was fueling rapid suburban expansion into nonmetro counties adjacent to metro centers. Many of those moving to more remote settings were able to use expanding airline services and the Internet to stay connected to urban-based employers and customers.

More Baby Boomers Heading to Rural Areas

Younger members of the baby boomer generation are still in the middle of child rearing, while those in their fifties are more likely to be empty nesters. Employment considerations still exert a strong influence on their collective migration decisions but will decrease sharply in the next decade. Baby boomers are increasingly drawn to areas with the right combination of scenic amenities (varied topography, relatively large lake or coastal areas, warm and sunny winters, and temperate summers), recreational or cultural opportunities, and reasonable housing costs. The presence of seasonal housing has been a particularly strong indicator of where retirement-related migration is likely to occur.

Net migration increased the number of baby boomers living in nonmetro areas by 1.1 million during 1990-2000. If baby boomers follow the same age-specific geographic patterns of migration as their predecessors, their presence in nonmetro locations will increase by 1.2 million in this decade and by 1.1 million during the 2010s, despite declines in their overall propensity to migrate. If they continue the marked preference for nonmetro destinations exhibited during their earlier life stages, nonmetro net migration of baby boomers could reach as high as 1.5 million in this decade and 1.6 million in the next.

Over the next 10 years, baby boomer migration will likely contribute to a significant deconcentration of the population. Assuming a midrange projection between the two outcomes described above, baby boomer net migration to core (predominantly urban) metro counties will switch from a 979,000 gain in the 1990s to a 643,000 loss in the 2010s. Fringe (predominantly rural) metro counties had the highest rates of baby boomer migration in the 1990s (a 17 percent increase, compared with a 9 percent gain for nonmetro counties), but are projected to drop to 8 percent during the 2010s. Fringe counties, along with adjacent nonmetro counties, received the bulk of past suburban expansion, but movement to these areas is becoming a smaller component of migration among baby boomers.



When measured in terms of relative change, more remote (nonadjacent) nonmetro counties will see the most dramatic changes from baby boomer migration. While nonadjacent counties gained 277,000 residents from net migration among baby boomers during the 1990s, midrange projections indicate that they will increase by nearly 362,000 and 383,000 during this decade and the next.

Whether adjacent to big cities or less accessible, counties with desirable physical attributes--pleasant climates, mountains, beaches, and lakes--are likely to increase their already high share of baby boomer migration. The ERS Natural Amenity Index attempts to measure the attractiveness of an area's natural amenities. Among the 500 nonmetro counties with the lowest scores, net migration is projected to decrease from a 180,000 gain in the 1990s to near zero in the 2010s. At the same time, net migration to the 500 counties with the highest scores will grow from 520,000 to 720,000. However, differences between projected and actual population outcomes are potentially greater for rapidly growing counties, such as those with scenic amenities and booming recreation-based economies. In the past, net migration decreased as such areas "filled up," often in response to higher housing prices. The current mortgage foreclosure crisis, particularly strong in recreation towns that experienced a recent housing boom, creates uncertainty about future demographic trends in these areas.

Regardless of future economic and housing market conditions, baby boomers will increase the size of rural America's retirement-age population. Assuming a midrange projection, the rural population between ages 55 and 75 will increase from 8.6 million to 14.2 million between 2000 and 2020. The overall rate of growth among this age group has likely tripled to 30 percent during the current decade, compared with that in the 1990s, and will remain above 25 percent in the next decade.




Without baby boomer net migration, the rate of growth for the rural population age 55 to 75 would be 18 percent in this decade and 15 percent during 2010-20. These trends affect not just traditional retirement regions in the South and West, but regions throughout the country. The biggest jump in nonmetro net migration rates is projected in the nonmetro Northeast, which is projected to be growing as fast as the nonmetro West during the 2010s.

Baby Boomers Will Continue To Reshape Rural Communities

Baby boomers are aging toward retirement and moving into high-amenity counties with concentrations of second homes. Migration to nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas will remain high, but baby boomer migration is likely to become much more dispersed than in the 1990s and not as strongly tied to suburban expansion. New destinations will likely be more isolated, with more empty nest households, and lower housing costs.

Migration impacts are unevenly distributed across the landscape. Rural jurisdictions face different demands for local goods and services and different opportunities for economic expansion, depending on population trends. Anticipating the types of areas that will receive large numbers of baby boomers in the near future could help communities plan for rising demand for housing, transportation, health care, and retail infrastructure.

The economic and social impacts of baby boomer migration connect to broader age-related issues subject to vigorous debate at federal, state, and local levels, including Social Security adjustments, pension guarantees, and health care provision. In this case, baby boomer migration will bring both additional benefits and costs for rural destinations. New residents are likely to have a positive impact on income and employment. They may also increase infrastructure costs for local governments and require health care and other services not currently available.

Development professionals often emphasize traditional strategies designed to attract manufacturing jobs to their communities. Infrastructure investments geared toward fostering this type of export-based employment growth likely will have minimal influence on the rising number of footloose baby boomer migrants who are looking for an improved quality of life. Other development specialists realize that net migration increasingly drives regional economies. Older migrants often bring significant new money into a county's economy, generate new demand for a variety of services, and boost job levels. Increased awareness of key factors attracting baby boomers to rural and small-town America will contribute to more effective, migration-based development strategies.

Editor's note: John Cromartie was a keynote speaker at the 44th Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Conference held in Missoula earlier this summer. The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research hosted the conference. This article is published in the Montana Business Quarterly courtesy of Amber Waves, USDA Economic Research Service.

* The size and direction of migration patterns vary considerably by age, and baby boomers are increasingly migrating to rural destinations.

* If baby boomers follow migration patterns similar to those of their predecessors, the rural population age 55-75 will increase by 30 percent between 2010 and 2020.

* Local economic development strategies aimed at attracting more jobs will likely have little effect on the migration decisions of baby boomers searching for a better quality of life.

Recession Throws Migration Trends a Curve Ball

by Patrick M. Barkey

Trends in population migration took a pause during the nation's worst recession since the Great Depression, recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau show. That is particularly true for the year 2009 in some of the traditionally faster growing parts of Montana.

A comparison of 2009 net migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants) for Montana's largest counties to their averages for the first nine years of the past decade, shown in Figure 1, makes this point. Prior to 2009, two of Montana's largest counties experienced negative net migration: Cascade and Silver Bow. The numbers were modest, and the natural increase in population of non-moving residents, due to increasing longevity, was more than sufficient to keep overall population growth positive.

Net migration was strongest in Gallatin and Flathead counties before 2009, followed by Yellowstone, Missoula, Ravalli and Lewis and Clark counties in magnitude during the years 2000-08.

In 2009, that pattern abruptly changed for three formerly fast growing counties: Flathead, Gallatin and Ravalli, with the latter two actually experiencing negative net migration. Missoula County also saw a sharp decrease. Yellowstone County experienced a significant increase in migration, perhaps owing to its status as a major destination for within-state migration (data on sources and destinations of migration are not available for year 2009).

Migration patterns are always affected by economic events like recessions, but given the prominence of housing in the current recession, the impact has been even more pronounced. National home prices, as measured by the Federal Home Loan Agency's housing price index, have declined by more than 10 percent since 2007, with many parts of the country experiencing more severe declines. Not only does this reduction in net worth reduce the ability of boomer households to finance relocation, but in cases where prices have fallen to the point where loan principal exceeds the sale price, owners may need to write a check to get out from under their old homes. The situation has clearly interrupted migration trends, which should resume when prices stabilize and markets return to better health.

Patrick M. Barkey is director of The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Figure 1

Net Migration, Selected Montana Counties Average
2000-2008 vs. 2009

                    Number of People

                    '00-'08      '09

Cascade             -585         -516
Flathead           1,367           66
Gallatin           1,953         -325
Lewis & Clark        465          551
Missoula             870          504
Ravalli              508         -154
Butte-Silver Bow    -180          178
Yellowstone          874        1,466

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Cromartie, John and Peter Nelson. 2009. Baby Boom Migration and Its Impact on Rural America, ERR 79, USDA, Economic Research Service, August 2009.

Nelson, Peter, James Nicholson, and E. Hope Stege. "The Baby Boom and Nonmetropolitan Population Change, 1970-1990." Growth and Change, 24 (4)(2004): 526-544.

Challenges From an Aging Population. Chapter in the ERS Briefing Room on Rural Population and Migration.

by John Cromartie and Peter Nelson with sidebar by Patrick M. Barkey

John Cromartie is a geographer with the USDA Economic Research Service, Resource and Rural Economics Division. Peter Nelson is an associate professor of geography at Middlebury College.
Table 1
Rate of Growth has Tripled for Nonmetro
Retirement-Age Populations Since the 1990s

U.S.              Nonmetro population ages 55-75
Region                   (in Millions)

            1990    2000      2010     2020   19905

Northeast   0.886   0.925    1.276    1.686    4.40
Midwest     2.633   2.685    3.235    3.944    2.00
South       3.480   3.868    4.972    6.272   11.20
West        0.957   1.152    1.708    2.251   20.30
L Total     7.957   8.631   11.191   14.152    8.50

             Growth rate of
U.S.           population
Region         (percent)

            2000s   2010s

Northeast   37.90   32.1
Midwest     20.50   21.9
South       28.50   26.1
West        48.20   31.8
L Total     29.70   26.5

Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, using data from the U.S.
Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics.
Projections for 2000-10 and 2010-20 were based on statistical
models of age-specific net migration and forward survival methods.
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Comment:Baby boom migration tilts toward rural America.
Author:Cromartie, John; Nelson, Peter
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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