Baby boomers heading West " oh, ‘woe!’
Aspen, CO Colorado
“More baby boomers are heading West,” announced a recent headline in The Associated Press. The retirement trend that has long focused geriatric relocations to warm southern climes is now shifting to the Rocky Mountain West. Time for a Horace Greeley revision: “Go West, old people!”
“Forget the warmth of Florida and Arizona,” reported the AP. “Baby boomers are gravitating toward the peaks and sagebrush basins of Wyoming and Montana, promising to turn these states from relatively young into two of the nation’s oldest. … They’re drawn by low crime, fresh air, little traffic and abundant outdoor activities.”
Colorado is bound to share this influx of oldsters who are “snapping up properties” in the new promised land. Demographers are forecasting an accompanying aging trend as urban boomers retire from careers, move out of ticky-tacky suburbs, load up the minivans and embark for a last hurrah in the uncrowded West.
Did I say uncrowded? Think again. If the surge reported by the AP is accurate, in 20 years mountain states will be overrun by boomers the way Yasger’s farm was inundated during Woodstock. Unfortunately, this idealized retirement might be dimmed by the growing pains of the rural mountain communities boomers target.
You can’t shift huge populations into rural settings and expect equilibrium. As urban boomers strive for “Green Acres” lifestyles, there is bound to be conflict within the communities they try to convert into their retirement fantasies.
The AP speculates that a labor crunch will follow the boomers’ migration as demand for services ramp up to meet an expanding ” and aging ” population. Montana already has established a trust fund for health care and essential services for retirees who are projected to burden the state’s social services infrastructure.
Some boomers might add to the labor force by deciding to continue working, but that probably won’t translate into clerks at 7-11 or maids at the Marriott. Instead, there will be a glut of professional level skill sets that will be hard to place in rural areas.
Many of the migrating boomers will be prosperous, assuming they can get out of the housing mess unscathed, but the majority will be looking for cheap land on which they can live easily on their retirement assets.
Ironically, many will end up in track housing or sprawling condos in once rural communities that fail to plan their growth intelligently. Rapid urbanization most likely will produce mass-market dwellings instead of carefully phased neighborhoods, and existing residents will wonder whatever happened to their sense of place.
Low crime, fresh air, little traffic and abundant outdoor activities quickly fade in the wake of sprawl. Taxes will have to increase to pay for the growth, and residents on fixed incomes will be hard-pressed to meet the cost of living as it’s driven up by the newcomers.
If rural communities want to keep ahead of this boomer burst, they must create master plans to avoid ugly sprawl and establish tax structures to make growth pay its own way. They must calculate real limits to that growth based on roads, water, social services, crime, rural ambiance and environment, and then put a cap on development, all of which must meet the highest green standards.
Communities unwilling or unable to adeptly meet the new tide of boomers will live to regret this migration trend. Traditional western mindsets will morph from “Westward Ho!” into “Westward Woe!”
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