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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).

Boomers Migrating to Rural America

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.

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.

This chart shows the years after World War II when births dramatically increased — the baby boom years. Charts from Economic Research Service.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This piece originally appeared on Daily Yonder, a “daily multi-media buffet” of everything rural. The author, Bill Bishop, is also the author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.

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  1. nice fluff piece. Maybe they will live in smart growth housing ?

    The truth is the boomers are broke and getting broker by the minute.
    Just wait till this next stock market crash that even idiots like me know is going to happen. anyone say inflation ? The list goes on. This economy isnt going to add jobs for a loooooong (5 – 10 years) time. The stock market wiped out alot of 401 k’s and if you still have it in the market get ready for the next shoe to drop. Stimulus will come and go things wont be getting better after its gone.

    Boomers arent going to be able to afford walking across the street let alone move to some rural county out west.

  2. There is absolutely nothing new presented in this article. The migration is already here and happening. If you read the original report you will notice the authors state that fact. Here are a few things the report doesn’t consider however.

    The data is, for the most part, quite dated. The models do not take into account the fact that many of the boomers have lost much of their retirement and may be in no position to relocate. If you consider that housing prices in the amenity rich areas have not fallen at the same rate as “mainstream” America and that foreclosure rates are not as high, high amenity locations are perhaps not such a great deal. Many blue collar workers are moving on but housing costs seems to stay the same.

    In addition, health care reform will significantly influence future moves. Not all high amenity locations have access to high quality health care; this is especially true of remote locations. As we age, things like cardiac care and orthopedics becomes increasingly important.

    If one looks closely at county level data, the migration to rural locations is often overstated. The highest growth in in urban and adjacent areas, then micropolitan, and then a select few high amenity areas that are small, wealthy, and provide access to high quality services. That won’t change.

    What probably will change is the preference for second homes in destination resorts. Until the financials are settled in places like Tamarack, Moonlight, YC, and others, no one in their right mind is going to invest in a second home where the business plan is flawed and the future is shaky.

  3. Fine, just as long as they don’t try to “save” wherever they show up. Been there, done that, not interested in another cycle.

  4. Seems like this has been going on for about 3 decades at least. The boomers are somewhat obnoxious and hypocritical. As soon as they arrive they begin erecting barriers to shut the gate behind them by enacting restrictive zoning and land use planning ordinances. They are actually CAVE BANANA NIMBYs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything-Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody-Never In My Backyard) masquerading as environmentalists. They feel entitled to be the last settlers instead of just the latest settlers. They supposedly despise cars and love buses and hate new roads and subdivisions but they still drive large and ostentatious S.U.V.s and even though only 5% of the land area is developed, they claim to be running out of “open space”. They repeat mindless assertions that “sprawl” is evil and is ruining their “quality of life”

  5. While the data may not be fresh, and the trend already seen, I, for one, welcome the article. Its a reaffirmation that much needed movement may well be forthcoming. What my fellow commentators don’t seem to address is that rural American towns NEED the stimulus that growth will bring. We have seen too many builders close shop, laying off tradesman; mills shut down, suppliers moving out, etc. Aging farmers and ranchers once looking to sell the farm and move closer to town are still holding on, hoping those urbanites will show up again and find their sprawling acreage charming. Why do you think blue collar workers are moving on? It’s not the cost of housing, its the lack of job opportunity to afford the housing. Human migration into an area necessarily brings with it opportunities that weren’t otherwise there, from the local stores, shops, restaurants, to building, suppliers, tradesman, and on down the line. What IS needed is planning for this potential migration….dedicating open spaces for parks, recreation and agriculture, preserving community centers, designing commercial areas, and yes, adding “amenities” such as health care. This will all bring with it much needed job opportunities. When people start arriving at your house uninvited, I say its time to plan a party. Makes for a much better time. And my feeling is now is the time to plan for future migration, make these people feel welcome and, in fact, invited, and watch your town and your neighbors prosper for the opportunities they bring. After all, having a good neighbor starts with being a good neighbor.

  6. Fact is, folks are leaving the cities in favor of small rural areas, and are bringing their skills and dollars with them. It is no secret that larger areas are so cash strapped that they are taxing their elderly and aging fixed income retired into poverty. In rural areas, the peace, quiet, freedom, low taxes, cheap utilities, with no “change” to come and take it away is nice. And, if your cash is not being siphoned off, as it is in the big cities, many folks don’t mind driving 30 or so miles to the nearest city to get whatever services they need. Remember, in remote areas, many folks often have their own farmer’s markets, fresh water wells, clean septic systems, and are not fettered by petty crime. In fact, your constitutional rights are usually still intact in these areas, crime is very low and neighbors look after one another; unlike the cities!

  7. Trouble is that that the new arrivals think they are smarter than the people already living in the rural areas and they begin to shove land use planning, restrictive zoning, public transportation, and increased property taxes down the old timers throats.