WASHINGTON (AP) — Rural America is losing population for the first time ever, largely because of waning interest among baby boomers in moving to far-flung locations for retirement and recreation, according to new census estimates.
Long weighed down by dwindling populations in farming and coal communities and the movement of young people to cities, rural counties are being hit by sputtering growth in retirement and recreation areas, once residential hot spots for baby boomers.
The new estimates, as of July 2012, show that would-be retirees are opting to stay put in urban areas near jobs. Recent weakness in the economy means some boomers have less savings than a decade ago to buy a vacation home in the countryside, which often becomes a full-time residence after retirement. Cities are also boosting urban living, a potential draw for boomers who may prefer to age closer to accessible health care.
About 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, reside in rural counties, which spread across 72 percent of the nation's land area. From 2011 to 2012, those non-metro areas lost more than 40,000 people, a 0.1 percent drop. The Census Bureau reported a minuscule 0.01 percent loss from 2010 to 2011, but that was not considered statistically significant and could be adjusted later.
Rural areas, which include manufacturing and farming as well as scenic retirement spots, have seen substantial movement of residents to urban areas before. But the changes are now coinciding with sharp declines in U.S. birth rates and an aging population, resulting in a first-ever annual loss.
U.S. migration data show that older Americans are most inclined to live in rural counties until about age 74, before moving closer to more populated locations. The oldest of the nation's 76 million boomers turn 74 in 2020, meaning the window is closing for that group to help small towns grow.