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Boomers Migrating to Rural America

By Bill Bishop |

Baby Boomers are coming. Over the next decade, many will leave the cities for smaller towns, a migration that will change the nature and economy of many rural counties.

Economic Research Service Boomers will move in increasing numbers to rural counties with scenic amenities — mountains, lakes, sunshine and rivers. The map above shows those counties with the most scenic amenities (in green) and those with the fewest (in brown).

My friend has lost his voice. He communicates with a child’s “doodle” pad these days, writing on an Etch A Sketch kind of board he can wipe clean with the sweep of a green plastic handle.

I tell him I’m reading a report about baby boomers who, in increasing numbers, are moving out of cities and into smaller, more remote towns. He picks up his hard-headed doodle pen and scrawls, “Like maybe me!”

The Economic Research Service (a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) reported this week that some parts of rural America will see a steady and quite large influx of older Americans over the next decade or so, as Baby Boomers, like my voiceless buddy, leave the larger cities for the quiet and the community of smaller cities.

The report is titled “Baby Boom Migration and Its Impact on Rural America.” The full text of the report can be found here

Economic Research Service This chart shows the years after World War II when births dramatically increased — the baby boom years. The generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 have shown before that they have an “affinity for moving to rural and small-town destinations” -- more so than either younger or older Americans -- write John Cromartie and Peter Nelson. During the early 1990s, when rural America saw a short-lived boost in population, much of that “rural rebound” came from Boomers moving into small towns, the authors write. 

Now those who are between 45 and 63 years of age are “poised to significantly increase the population of 55-75 year olds in rural and small-town America through 2020, with major social and economic implications for their chosen destinations,” according to Cromartie and Nelson.

Boomers are moving, and as they do, they are leaving both metro areas and suburbia in favor of smaller towns. Metro areas gained 973,000 Boomers during the 1990s, according to Cromartie and Nelson. Counties on the fringe of metro areas — the suburbs or exurbs — had the highest rate of Boomer in-migration during that decade.

Economic Research Service The number of Boomers migrating to rural, or non-metro, counties is increasing, gaining steam in the next decade. In the 2010s, however, those trends will reverse. Metro areas will see a net loss of 643,000 Boomers during the next decade. Fringe counties will see their in-migration rates remain stable. But rural counties, will welcome increasing numbers of Boomers. “After gaining only 277,000 boomer migrants during the 1990s, these nonadjacent counties will gain nearly 362,000 and 383,000 new Boomer residents during the 2000s and 2010s, respectively,” Cromartie and Nelson write.

Most counties won’t see a big influx of Boomers, however. My voiceless, doodle-writing friend scribbled that he and his wife are thinking of moving to northern New Mexico, in the mountains.

This is typical boomer behavior, seeking out the places with the most natural amenities — beaches, lakes, rivers and mountains. Cromartie and Nelson found that the net migration to the 500 rural counties with the most scenic amenities will increase from 520,000 in the 1990s to 720,000 in the 2010s.

Economic Research Service This shows migration by Boomers into rural counties divided by amenities. The 25% of rural counties with the most amenities are on the right. They will get most of the Boomer migration over the coming years. Those counties with the fewest amenities on the left will become home to the fewest Boomer migrants.

The 500 rural counties with the fewest scenic amenities will see their net migration  decrease from 180,000 in the 1990s to near zero in the 2010s

The report projects that the rate of growth in rural areas of those 55 to 75 years of age has tripled in this decade over the 1990s. From 2000 to 2020, the number of rural residents between 55 and 75 will increase from 8.6 million to 14.2 million. Half of that increase will come from in-migration, according to Cromartie and Nelson.

This report covers a number of areas. Here are some highlights I've plucked out:

Winners and Losers  

The volume of migration flows into and out of rural areas shifts periodically, sometimes quite suddenly, as was the case with the “rural turnaround” of the 1970s and its subsequent demise. However, migration tends to persistently favor counties with specific attributes—employment opportunities, scenic amenities, reasonable real estate prices, proximity to large cities, among others.

Patterns of Life

Since 1960, nonmetro population loss from net outmigration has dropped to near zero after age 30 and even switched to gains in the1970s and 1990s. As families settle down, a significant proportion of return migration to nonmetro counties occurs and fewer people choose to leave rural and small towns.

For about 15-20 years after people reach their midfifties, the propensity to migrate stops decreasing and, in some cases, increases slightly. At the same time, the direction of migration shifts markedly toward lower density settings. Many suburban, “empty-nest” couples downsize and move closer to city centers to take advantage of cultural amenities, while others seek recreational opportunities, lower housing costs, increased feelings of personal safety, or a perceived slower pace of life by moving to the countryside. As they age toward retirement, Americans are still much less prone to move than they are in their twenties, but they are much more prone to choose rural and small-town destinations when they do move.

Economic Research Service This chart shows the net migration by age from 1980 to 2000. The blue line shows rural counties. The brown line shows the net change of population due to migration in the cities. You can see that rural counties lost young people from 1980 to 2000 — but older people were more likely to move into rural counties than they were to leave.

The “Rural Renaissance” and Beyond

Many factors contributed to this “rural renaissance,” including the economic stress of baby boomers. Decreasing urban job opportunities inhibited the rural-to-urban flow of young workers. Additionally, boomers already living in cities but unable to enter the housing market looked beyond metro boundaries to cheaper options in small-town and rural hinterlands. Overall, they still favored metro destinations as they aged through their twenties, but their net outmigration rate from nonmetro areas was less than half that of similar age groups during the 1960s. 

The ebbs and flows of nonmetro population change since the 1970s have been strongly linked to the migration of baby boomers. An exceptionally severe farm crisis and economic recessions heavily focused on goods-producing industries made it harder for rural areas to retain current residents or attract new migrants in the 1980s. Large metro regions in particular regained much of the economic momentum lost in the 1970s. The demographic response to these regional economic shifts came largely from boomers in their late twenties and early thirties migrating more to increasingly career-friendly urban centers.

Later, baby boomers led a short-lived rural “rebound” in the early 1990s, 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 31-49 years old and still strongly career oriented. Much of their nonmetro migration fueled rapid suburban expansion into counties adjacent to metro centers. 

Many of those moving to more remote settings, most notably in the intermountain West and other scenic regions with recreation opportunities, benefited from expanding airline services and the Internet, which enabled them to stay connected to urban-based employers and customers. Whether driven by technological changes, increased wealth, changing lifestyle preferences, or a combination of factors, areas once popular as recreation and tourist destinations became increasingly popular as permanent residences.

If these geographic patterns mark a socioeconomic transition toward retirement, it is the beginning of a migration trend that will have increased over the current decade and will persist well into the next. 

Geographic Variations

The coming increase in nonmetro populations age 55-74 will vary geographically. These trends are projected to affect not just traditional retirement regions in the South and West but nonmetro areas throughout the country. The biggest absolute increases will be in the South, where the nonmetro population age 55-74 is projected to increase by almost 2.5 million between 2000 and 2020. The largest percentage increase will be in the nonmetro Northeast, which is projected to grow slightly faster than the nonmetro West during the 2010s. The Midwest is also projected to increase in population growth rates among this age group, from just 2 percent in the 1990s to over 20 percent in both the current and next decades.

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