A Glimpse of Older America
Study Says Lakeland, Fla., Looks Just Like the U.S. of 2025
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005; A01
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The politicians and power brokers of this central Florida town don't like to acknowledge it, but underneath the manicured, tree-lined surface lies the economy of an aging America's future.
The Lakeland area is not a retirement community, dotted with shuffleboard courts and senior centers, but the businesses that cluster here reflect the subtle influence of a population that is markedly older than the current national average.
Polk Community College may attract ambitious young students, as college President J. Larry Durrence says, but they're training to be nurses or respiratory therapists. His wife, an attorney, specializes in "elder law."
Nearly a third of Maureen Shaw's florist business comes either from out-of-state children sending flowers to their retired parents or seniors sending condolence bouquets. Keith DeLoach grew up here. After West Point, the Special Forces and combat in Afghanistan, the 32-year-old just moved back to open a financial services firm -- largely to help retirees stretch their savings.
And don't get the young started on the driving -- drifting off the road, lefts on red, interminable right turns. "Oh, my God, they're sooooo slow," said Michelle Czelusniak, 20.
"General rule," said bartender Joe Varco, 29: "Heads up for white hair and big Cadillacs."
The Lakeland area, from Lakeland proper to Winter Haven 15 miles away, population about half a million -- is a demographic dead ringer for the United States of 2025, according to research by Wake Forest University economists. While other economists strain to project current economic trends into the baby boomers' retirement years, the Wake Forest team devised a novel approach: Find the future today.
What they found was Lakeland, with its Wi-Fi Internet connections and well-tended downtown, and an economy that diverges from the national average in interesting ways. Sure, sales of furniture, garden equipment and cars are booming here as they are in many other places. But grocery stores, restaurants and bars, clothing stores and department stores are pulling in far less of the consumers' dollars than in cities with more representative age demographics.
Health care and golf are in; fast food and musical instruments are out. And forget about doughnuts.
"It is unlikely that the future will look much different than Lakeland," said Sherry L. Jarrell, Garst Reese and Gary L. Shoesmith of Wake Forest's Babcock Graduate School of Management.
By 2025, boomers born in 1955 will be 70. Just less than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be younger than 15, slightly less than today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the middle of the age spectrum will hollow out, while the number of those 65 and older will swell from 12.4 percent of the population to 18.2 percent.
The 65-and-over set in Lakeland closely resembles the projected United States of 2025. At 22.6 percent, its 45-to-64 population comes close to the 2025 projection of 23.5 percent. There are 42 residents who are 65 or older for every 100 workers. The nation in 2025 is projected to have 43 Social Security beneficiaries for every 100 workers.
Another surprise is personal finance. It is conventional wisdom that seniors now and in the future will keep working to supplement their income. The economists at Woods and Poole expect that nationwide, personal income will account for 85.3 percent of total income in 2025, down only slightly from 86.4 percent in 2005. Other income, mainly from Social Security and other government "transfer payments," will rise modestly, the firm expects, from 13.6 percent to 14.6 percent of income.
But if the older cities in the Wake Forest study are an indication, the elderly will earn less and depending on government more than expected. The residents of the cities of today earn nearly 66.7 percent of their income.
The citizens of tomorrow earn 60 percent of their income. Sources such as Social Security and other government programs provide 15.2 percent of income in the younger cities and 19.6 percent in the two older towns.
"There's going to be a big change, and nobody's really ready for it; maybe we will be poorer," said Shoesmith, one of the Wake Forest economists. "If earned income is dropping that much, where will all the transfer payments come from? That's going to be a pretty significant problem."
Several years ago, DW and I drove to Key West. We were tired, decided to motel it in a town called Sun City Center (I believe). After getting directions to a local restaurant, we looked up (it was about 5 p.m.) in the dining room, and it was all, repeat all white-haired elder citizens. I had never been in a restaurant where EVERYBODY was old. I poked DW, exhorting her to "just look around and what do you notice?" She, of course, chastised me for "pointing" or saying something publicly. But, she noticed it, all the same. It really looked like a senior citizen's nursing home.
There's a lot more in the article, concerning hospitals, physicians, cemetaries, etc. It presents a clear picture of the future, I guess.