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Florida May Lose Some of Its Boomer Shine

Labor shortages could squeeze the nation’s most popular retirement destinations, providing new opportunities for places like Tennessee and North Carolina to cater to seniors.

The scramble to find service workers has been on display among large corporate employers in recent weeks. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is raising its average wage to $15 an hour. McDonald’s Corp. is boosting its average wage to $13 an hour for its company-owned stores. Amazon.com Inc. says new hires for its fulfillment and distribution operations will be paid an average of $17 an hour.

And one under-recognized potential loser from this bidding war is retirement communities, such as the Villages in Florida.

From an economic developer’s point of view, making a big bet on retirement communities 20 years ago made a lot of sense. The Baby Boomer generation was set to be the largest and wealthiest generation of retirees in human history. There are well-worn migration patterns from north to south filled with ways for retirees to spend their investment portfolios, pensions and Social Security incomes. Just as the technology industry found benefits from clustering in San Francisco, and the media industry from clustering in New York and Los Angeles, so the “retirement industry” concentrated in the warm and sunny states of Florida and Arizona.

But retirement communities, by definition, are full of people who aren’t working anymore, and so depend on the labor of others. They require construction workers to build homes, healthcare workers to take care of an older population, landscapers to maintain subdivisions and golf courses, and restaurant and other types of service workers to operate the amenities that make their communities desirable places to live. There’s been no reason to think in the last couple of decades that we’d have a shortage of those types of workers, thanks to the loose labor markets following the recessions in 2001 and 2008, and to ample amounts of immigration in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Today it’s a different story.

And that’s a problem for communities that have bet their futures on importing retirees. When we think about fast-growing metro areas in the U.S., we might picture Austin, Texas, or Boise, Idaho, which have been popular destinations for people leaving the West Coast in search of cheaper housing. But the two fastest-growing metro areas in the 2010’s were actually Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the Villages — both places favored by retirees. The question now is how they’re going to sustain their growth in an era where labor isn’t so cheap, and where retirees aren’t necessarily the groups of people best-positioned to win bidding wars for service workers.

As is happening seemingly everywhere, employers in the Villages are reporting trouble finding workers right now. Florida’s economy has been one of the most open throughout the pandemic, so there may be less reason to think its labor situation will be alleviated by further pandemic-related recovery. Miami and Tampa are the two hotel markets in the country that have already made up for their pandemic-related losses.

In the 2010’s we were still relatively early in the Baby Boomer retirement wave. There were a lot of immigrant workers in Florida who had come to the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s, and the state was recovering from a significant housing market bust in 2008 — all conditions that benefited retirement communities. Conditions coming out of the pandemic-related downturn are much more challenging for employers and would-be retirees in the 2020’s.

Pension and Social Security payouts tend to grow only at the rate of inflation, so to the extent costs rise faster in labor-intensive service industries than overall inflation, fixed-income retirees will be particularly squeezed. People still in the workforce will more likely be getting wage increases that put them in a better position to handle rising costs.

One possible future for retirement communities can be glimpsed in what happened in the technology industry over the past several years. Too much industry concentration on the West Coast drove up costs and lead to a shortage of resources, requiring activity to be spread out across the country.

Perhaps the growth of large-scale, single-purpose retirement communities like the Villages will slow down, with growth shifting to lower-cost secondary markets in states like North Carolina or Tennessee. This represents an opportunity for developers in other areas that have relatively more labor, cheap land and warm weather, making them potentially attractive to retirees.

With the youngest Baby Boomers still in their late 50’s, the retirement wave has years to run, making this a trend to watch as the economy comes to grips with a new era of less abundant, more expensive labor.

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