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Grandma and Grandpa Won’t Always Retire to Florida

And that's good news for both millions of parents and, well, Florida.

There’s a famous political science theory positing that the invention of air conditioning constituted the single most important event in American political life in the latter half of the 20th century. The thinking goes that climate control concentrated conservative opinions by enabling older folks to comfortably move south, specifically to historically liberal and latin Florida. A/C got credit for Ronald Reagan’s presidential win and probably deserved it as much as Justice Scalia for George W. Bush’s squeaker against Al Gore. But air conditioning didn’t just shift the Electoral College, it altered family norms. Air conditioning is why the boomer generation had less child rearing help from their parents and had to buy all those tickets to Fort Lauderdale. The migration of older people to Florida (also Arizona) altered the course of millions of working parents’ financial and social lives.

But will the children of millennials visit their Baby Boomer grandparents in the Sunshine State? Unlike crocodiles eating Havaneses and horrifying “Florida Man” new clippings, it’s not a given. The choice–millions of choices really–is high stakes for young parents, given the potential value of caretaking work done by retirees, and for Floridians, who stand at a swampy crossroads.

It is also not a given that the continued influx of elderly will be forever welcomed by Floridians. There are downsides to having life support be the lifeblood of an economy. Though Florida’s leader may embrace their state’s continued role as a major retirement destination, they won’t do so if they believe that it will scare off young families. Workers matter and if Florida prioritizes attracting them–as it has been–there is the chance that the state will reverse demographic trends driven by air conditioning. There’s a chance that Florida will no longer be where Grandpa and Grandma go to play shuffleboard.

“You don’t see too many retirees lately in Miami lately, almost none. Our city’s median age is going down quickly,” says Pat Santangelo, who handles public affairs at the City of Miami Mayor’s Office. “There are 67 counties in Florida, and it’s important to remember that they’re diverse and changing.”

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This is mild bragging. Miami is proud of its ability to attract younger people and, in particular, proud of its “innovation district,” a 15-acre section of Little Haiti called “Magic City” that’s currently slated to debut in 2018. The idea behind the project is to attract sun-starved start-up types priced out of incubators in San Francisco and New York. Alternatively put, the idea is to attract significant investment and an educated working population.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce employs a full-time economist who maintains The Florida Scorecard, an at-a-glance look at how the state is doing in a variety of respects. It catalogs statistics related to Florida education, infrastructure, business climate–high school graduation rate slightly below average, employment rate slightly above average–and note that roughly a billion of venture capital is up for grabs in the state. That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of billions in play in California, but it’s enough to build some momentum. And overcoming the inertia of an elderly population is a major theme in Florida politics right now.

That’s no easy thing because of how entrenched the retirement community truly is. There are six counties in Florida with a median age of 50 or older and one county, Sumter, northeast of Tampa, with a median age over 60. There are roughly a quarter million Floridians over the age of 85. For context, the median American age is 37.8 and there are roughly 4.5 million Americans over the age of 85. And that’s not all. Between 2010 and 2030, Florida’s population is forecast to grow by almost 4.8 million. Government experts expect the bulk of new Floridians to be 60 or older, further driving down the ratio of workers to retirees.

There are four workers to every retiree in America today and three workers to every retiree in Florida. That number is projected to drop to two workers to every retiree in Florida by 2030. Demographically speaking, that would make Florida not so much a demographic outlier (17.3 percent senior citizens versus 13% nationwide was outlier status) as a state poised to play the role of spectator when the march of progress comes to town.

This has some people nervous. And this has other people working to prevent the creation of a healthcare equivalent to the petrostate. The Florida 2030 Project is a two-year research effort by the Chamber of Commerce that aims to identify how to harness the state’s untapped economic potential. So far every county in the state has hosted a town hall-style event, seeing Florida residents kick tires and float ideas about their state’s future. Top of the list? Owning the new space race as private companies seek to profit from access to low-Earth orbit and meeting energy needs by investing in renewables and new technologies.

“Florida will continue to be the reward for a life well-lived, but it also represents opportunity for those starting families,” says Greg Blosé, Director of Grassroots Development and Engagement at the Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps predictably, the quality of this opportunity is largely a function of how how you earn a living. The state’s economy over the past decade has been a three-part backbone of agriculture, construction, and tourism, and the state’s large senior population also keeps its medical industry trending upward.

With respect to secondary industries on the rise, the state’s coastal geography has it perfectly positioned for trade and shipping work. Blosé says that the needles for Florida’s established manufacturing, aviation, and aerospace industries continue move meaningfully. Scientific research institutes are establishing meaningful presences within Florida’s borders, like Scripps Research Institute and the University of Florida Research and Academic Center. There’s a grab bag of income-generating work available.

This is all to say that despite the fact that one out of every three new Florida residents has most of their life behind them, policymakers are obsessing over the ones that don’t. It’s the type of attention that is sure to jibe with a young family’s sensibilities, wanting to ensure that their needs are met and their own future is secure. The one caveat being that this sort of project or industry specific attention tends to drive migration to specific places, not to states as a whole. And this is already happening. Miami real estate prices are booming. Younger workers are rushing in. Many of these people are Latin American, but they nonetheless represent the state’s desired demographic: People who wake up and go to work.

For now, they seem to be coexisting peacefully with the retirees, but there is, because of limited housing stock, always the possibility that the detente is voided over the course of thousands of bidding wars.

If Baby Boomers do flock to Florida, it will lock others out, but that’s a trade off. A significant migration would help younger families, many of whom are struggling to find homes in Boomer-filled neighborhoods, buy houses left behind. If Florida stays old or gets even older, that could be good news for the rest of the country in that it would loosen the real estate market and force politicians in other states to better serve younger people instead of playing to a gray, calcified base. But that version of the future, the likely one in which Florida stays old, is also the version of the future in which Florida politics remain chaotic and schismatic.

In reality, the likely resolution is that Florida manages to attract young professionals to some specific areas to work in some specific industries (and check each other out on the beach). As this continues to happen, it’s probable that the demographic differences between areas will become extreme. There will be old cities and young cities. Put differently, there will be Florida’s within Florida, communities of geriatrics cared for by satellite communities of (probably ethnically homogenous) healthcare providers. The sorting of the state by age will be unattractive to some retirees and attractive to others and probably make visiting a strange experience.

If Florida successfully pursues growth, it seem likely if not inevitable that the state’s older residents will become increasingly out of touch with a world that seems to be changing at an increasing pace. This could present serious logistical and family problems for Millennial parents trying to raise forward-looking kids. But, on the plus side, if Baby Boomers go south their children’s generation will finally have somewhere to live.