Florida Gov. Rick Scott travels to California this weekend to steal away some of our state’s businesses. So why don’t we return the favor by taking away more of Florida’s greatest assets – old people?
Californians like to think of this state as a place of endless youth and growing diversity. But the biggest transformation is the breathtaking speed with which our population is aging. Instead of just measuring ourselves against oil-rich Texas or Wall Street-dependent New York, we should focus more on Florida as our competitor.
While Californians 65 years or older represent just 12 percent of the state’s population today (slightly below the national average and well below Florida’s rate of 19 percent), the number of seniors is projected to nearly double by 2030, to 20 percent of the population. That rate of growth is roughly the equivalent of adding one new Rossmoor – the massive senior community in Walnut Creek – twice a month for the next 15 years.
And even that may not be enough geezers to meet our needs. Other sources of new Californians are drying up – immigration is flat, the birth rate has dropped, and high costs of living are pushing young families out of state. Because our state’s budget system relentlessly forces cuts at our universities and older voters dominate our politics, both preclude big investments to attract more young people.
So if California wants to grow, and find new homebuyers and shoppers, our best option may be to persuade more people to spend their golden years in the Golden State.
Surveys show that the fastest-growing American regions are also the most successful in attracting retirees. Yet California has built very little of the senior-oriented infrastructure that makes Florida a magnet for the old. Instead, we’ve treated seniors like cost centers (because of their high health costs) and cut back services they need, including housing, culture and transportation. Too many California communities are chasing the same young, creative people with bike paths and downtown lofts.
It’s telling that the biggest California debate involving seniors right now is about how to make it easier for them to end their lives when they’re terminally ill.
State Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, who led a select legislative committee on aging last year, contrasts the avalanche of attention she received for a bill requiring adult bicyclists to wear helmets to the silence that greeted her committee’s comprehensive report. But it is worth reading. In more than 200 pages, it recounts our collective failure to plan properly for old age – long-term care programs scattered across six departments, an alarming lack of data and standards – and makes 30 recommendations, including appointing a czar on aging.
The report notes that needs are particularly great in less-populated areas. And, given the expense of living in coastal California, it makes sense to focus on recruiting seniors to lower-cost communities inland. UCLA Anderson School economist Jerry Nickelsburg has argued that the Central Valley would have much to gain by making itself a destination for older people. That would require building improved health care facilities and senior centers and training more people to care for seniors. The good news: those low-risk investments would produce badly needed jobs.
There’s another opportunity in the growing diversity of California’s senior population. The United Nations estimates the worldwide 60-plus population will more than double to 2 billion by 2050. If California can develop senior infrastructure to serve people of many cultures and languages, it could pitch itself as a global destination for retirees.
Go West, old man.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.