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Numbers prove it: Florida getting older

Despite a large increase of children in the state, growing numbers of retirees and Baby Boomers raise Florida's median age.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

Despite a large increase of children in the state, growing numbers of retirees and Baby Boomers raise Florida's median age.

Though the demographic truth has been bearing down on us for decades, the word is now official: We're getting older.

Figures released today by the U.S. Census Bureau showed notable median age increases in Florida, and in most Tampa Bay area counties, which follows the national trend.

While Florida made its reputation as a retiree state based on its tradition of attracting Midwestern and Northeastern retirees, a look at census detail suggests other forces at work: The population of children increased greatly, but not in big enough raw numbers to offset the sheer bulk of retirees.

Add to that the statistical might of an aging Baby Boom generation and you have an increasing median age statewide.

It's a course that has implications in the arenas of public policy, marketing, finance and health care, not to mention the social insecurity of being part of an aging population.

The message from demographers: Get over it. The gray wave is not waning any time soon.

Florida's median age went to 38.7 in 2000, more than two years higher than 1990. With the exception of Pasco, Suncoast counties also edged up.

"It might require a shift in thinking," said Jay Sokolovsky, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida who studies aging issues.

Look for subtle changes over time, Sokolovsky said, in the kinds of cars you see at dealerships; how much money is devoted to public schools; how people rethink retirement; and what kinds of health care become more readily available.

"I think it's an indicator of the direction in which the state is going," said Scott McPherson, who led Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to get Floridians counted in the 2000 census. "I think it's a good barometer of how government will focus its resources."

While the main trends were of little surprise to those who study demographics, the more detailed data showed some intriguing twists:

Pinellas was one of only two Florida counties with a drop in residents age 65 and older. The county's retirement population fell by 6.4 percent.

Though St. Petersburg often has been called the home of the newly wed and nearly dead, opposite trends were at work: Numbers of young adults and senior citizens actually declined. That the city got slightly older largely is a function of middle-age spread -- growth in those 35-54.

Citrus County reversed itself, getting older during the last decade. The county logged in a median age of nearly 53, which is the second-highest of any Florida county. Citrus' retirement population grew by nearly 30 percent.

Conversely, Pasco County grew younger by a faster rate than any other Florida county. Pasco's median age dropped by three years. The trend toward a younger population, say planners, was fueled by families moving in from Hillsborough and Pinellas in search of good public schools and affordable subdivisions.

Fast-growing Hillsborough County, which registered nearly 1-million residents, saw its median age go up by nearly two years. Though it got older faster than any other Tampa Bay area county, at 35.1, it had by far the youngest median age of any of them.

Hernando County's median age edged up only slightly to 49.5 years. However, the county's population center, Spring Hill, long known as a haven for retirees, got much younger and showed big gains in its numbers of children. The trend was offset by 30 percent growth in the 65-plus age brackets.

Sun City Center in Hillsborough County had the highest median age of any place in the Tampa Bay area at 75, and Saint Leo in Pasco County, home to Saint Leo University, had the youngest at 20.5.

Median age is the midpoint -- half the population is older and half is younger.

Analysis of the numbers for the Tampa Bay area's 127 cities, towns and places showed a recurring theme: increases in the numbers of middle-age folks, and elementary and middle school-age children.

Couple that with scattered decreases in preschool children and adults younger than 35, and it supports the theory that a portion of the change shown in this census is a reflection of aging Baby Boom-era parents and their progeny.

As these folks get older, and retirees continue to move to Florida, they're going to tax what Jay Wolfson calls the "social infrastructure."

It's enough to make those who follow such matters feel nostalgic for the heady days of the 1990 census, in which Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties registered median age drops.

While those communities -- including St. Petersburg -- crowed about their youthful trends, Florida boosters this time around were quick to point out the advantages of a maturing population.

"It's just plain prejudice," said Steve Liner, vice president of communications for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "Aging Floridians are good for the economy, plain and simple."

The Census Bureau projects that by 2025, the state's elderly will grow to 26 percent of the population, which would mean that Florida would remain the state with the largest percentage of elderly.

Florida Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Gema Hernandez said Floridians need to accept that and get ready for it. She advocates all manner of planning and policy changes that range from the big picture to the details.

Medicare, she said, needs to be overhauled so it doesn't get out of control. Local planners and elected officials need to think about things such as widening traffic lanes and increasing crosswalk times so older people can get across the street.

More important, Hernandez said, is that Floridians get better about how they think about aging.

"Aging is inevitable," Hernandez said. "Living life to the fullest is an option."

- Computer assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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