Every so often, Ann Bulk thinks about retiring to some bucolic spot in the Carolinas where her pet greyhounds would have room to run. But then she looks around her modest, two-story townhouse in a Prince William County, Va., subdivision, 25 miles west of Washington and reconsiders. “This is home to me,” she says. “It’s what I’m familiar with.”
At 58, Bulk isn’t really close to retiring. She supports herself on her salary as the human resources manager at a Sears store, supplemented by a modest income from making and selling jackets and raincoats for greyhounds. Her daughter, Vanessa, 26, is living with her while looking for work. And Bulk has her own 84-year-old mother, now in an assisted living facility nearby, to think about as well. “I’ve got a sense of roots here,” says Bulk, who moved to the area when she was 23. “I figure I lived here, I’ll die here.”
She’ll have company. It has been 50 years since the country’s first age-segregated retirement community—Sun City, outside Phoenix, Ariz.—opened its doors and stamped its leisure-filled and cloistered vision of growing older on the national psyche. Sun City and its many imitators are still going strong, but when the results of the 2010 U.S. Census begin filtering out in December, the numbers will show a 50-plus America that looks a lot more like Ann Bulk: many members in multigenerational suburbs that not so long ago were considered preserves for young families; many with grown children living nearby or even at home; and huge numbers of people approaching or past the end of their working lives who are choosing to stay put, rather than light out for golfing territory.
This trend to “age in place” isn’t new. Despite the Sun City stereotype, people over 50 have always been less likely to migrate than people in their 20s and 30s. But the census will show that the number of older Americans and the median age of the nation have ballooned. The extraordinary number of boomers, whose first members turn 65 next year, means they will be far more noticeable in the places they age than their predecessors. And they will be aging in every corner of the country. The fastest growth in the 55- to 64-year-old cohort during the past decade occurred in Western states like Oregon, Arizona and Idaho, and in New England. Even the state with that group’s slowest projected growth, New York, saw a 33 percent rise, according to William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who has studied the boomer and World War II generations.
“You used to think of places that attracted seniors as specialized retirement communities” like Sun City, Frey says. “Now, in effect, most of America will be a ‘retirement’ community.”
Eight of the 10 counties with the fastest-growing populations of people age 55 and over between 2000 and 2008 were suburban. A trip to Prince William (10th among fast-growing 65-plus populations) offers a glimpse of what’s to come. And it suggests that older Americans value connection at least as highly as such leisure-time amenities as good restaurants and golf courses. The connection might be to family, to locale, to a community of friends and acquaintances, or to all three. But the trend is clear: Boomers, their elders and their children can be considered, as a whole, “the attachment generations.”
You could see this in a report from the Pew Research Center that found the lowest rate of adults changing residences between 2007 and 2008 since the government began tracking this trend in the late 1940s. Three-quarters of people who chose not to move cited family as the reason. Joel Kotkin, a social thinker and writer whose new book, The Next Hundred Million, looks at the demographic trends that will affect America in 2050, finds this “settledness” to be especially marked among boomers, who are staying “tethered to their suburban homes—close to family, friends, clubs, churches and familiar surroundings,” he wrote in Newsweek recently.