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Florida officials: No older people wanted?

As Florida gropes for a way to restart our sputtering economy, a troubling idea is popping up among elected officials and opinion leaders:  Incredibly, some elected officials think that Florida state government should fear a large aging population.

There’s even talk that attracting older residents to Florida is a bad idea – that there is no room for gray-haired folks in Florida’s “new economic model.” 

“Actually, recruiting older people to relocate to Florida, and keeping the older residents we have, should be one major component of Florida’s plans to restart growth,” AARP Florida State Director Lori Parham said recently.  “It’s one of the few strategies that offers fast results.  Our problem today is that today’s older population has changed – but Florida’s strategies haven’t.” 

Parham noted that Florida is still using the same approach to attracting older people that we used in the era of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. 

Scarred by the Great Depression, but flush with cash from the sale of their Northern homes, older people in those days sought cheap land, low taxes and sunshine.  “We sold it to them,” Parham said.  “In return they, and those who followed them, made Florida a mega-state, the fourth-largest in the nation.”   

Today, Parham noted, Florida’s potential pool of relocating retirees is the vast Baby Boom generation, the largest in history.  There are more than 70 million Boomers – that’s real economic muscle. 

Researchers have found that each Boomer who relocates to Florida, or keep here, is a gain, not only to the state’s overall economy but to state government as well.  In 2008, the Leroy Collins Institute at the Florida State University found that an average retiree contributes $2,000 more in revenues to the state than he or she consumes in services.  For wealthier retirees, the margin is higher. 

Also, economist Dr. David Denslow of the University of Florida has said that retirees generate $4 in state revenue for every $3 they cost in state services.  “That’s an annual return on investment of 33 percent – that’s good money, these days,” Parham said.

But this strategy can only work if Florida’s leaders understand tomorrow’s older population, what they want and what they need, Parham said. 

“The old strategy of cheap land and low taxes alone won’t work. Boomers want more,” Parham said.  “Cultural offerings, good services, strong educational systems and a sustainable lifestyle are important to them and their families.  Our top competitors, like North Carolina and Arizona, have higher tax rates and yet they are attracting more retirees.” 

Boomers understand that if they relocate to a state, they’ll need services to remain living independently well into their eighties.  To attract them, it is critical to offer good hospitals and doctors, good transportation alternatives, a new approach to urban and home design and good home- and community-based aging services. 

Parham also called for “a new approach to our workforce.  Some state leaders worry that Boomer retirements will cripple our workforce, leading to chronic labor shortages.  Actually, Boomers tell AARP that they not only want to have longer working lives, they must work to supplement their income.”

Florida employers can leverage their strong work ethic and formidable skills by emphasizing flexible work schedules, phased retirement and other workplace innovations. 

“We have no time to waste.  The first Boomer turns 65 on Jan. 1, 2011 – only about a year away,” Parham said in late December. 

Positioning Florida to take advantage of Boomer aging requires a fundamental shift in thinking.  Elected leaders deciding on a wide range of issues, from tax policy to services for older people to education funding, must understand the new realities of an older population and how to realize the potential benefits from this demographic shift, Parham noted. 

“This isn’t going to be easy, but it can be done if we can summon the political will to act,” Parham said.  “The good news is that the sun is still warm here every winter.  Property prices are down.  We’re a relative bargain again.  Also, Florida leaders can draw on a rich store of expertise, from our universities and Department of Elder Affairs to AARP.  We stand ready to help.” 

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