Go West, Old Man: Retirees Are Following the Pioneers
Hufman, M. J., Science & Spirit
Baby boomers aging into retirement are heating a path west. Their migration is fueled by a search similar to that of the wagon hound pioneers of American history. However, instead of chasing the hope of wealth, the new migration is fueled by health.
A prospector chasing the 1849 gold rush and a modern-day member of the middle class head off into the setting sun for much the same reason: The West offers the possibility of a new and better life.
In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner offered his Famous--and now much disputed--frontier thesis, postulating that the American character was largely forged as the population spread westward. He believed Americans transformed from stiff, formal Europeans into frontier democrats, individualists, pragmatists, and religious sectarians.
His paper came on the heels of the 1890 census, which declared the end of the physical frontier of America--it was officially populated. But there were still non-geographic frontiers to challenge and shape the American character. The country searched for its place in the world; the citizens sought their piece of the American dream; and each generation tried to put its imprint on history.
Turner said with each frontier there was "scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons," and that is arguably true of the baby boom generation, which does not want to go quietly into its good night. It is forsaking the way of its fathers, forging a new frontier--searching for a healthy, lengthy retirement. The numbers tell the story as baby boomers and retirees head west:
* Only the Southeast, anchored by Florida, surpasses the West as the country's cradle of retirement.
* Seven of the nation's ten fastest growing states are west of the Mississippi Rivei; The top two--Arizona and Nevada--make up the heart of the so-called New West.
* Eight of the ten most populous cities are in the West, as are the seven fastest-growing cities.
Phoenix recently became the fifth most populous city, vaulting over Philadelphia.
"It's hard to think of the cradle of liberty being overtaken by a rough and tumble independent Western town, but that tells you something about the nature of our country," Brookings Institution demographer William Frey said in a recent report. "We're a country that's always seeking new horizons."
The slogan of those chasing the new horizon, or frontier, is stolen from the iconic baby boomer TV show "Star Trek": "Live long and prosper." The West is becoming an ideal place for that. States like Arizona. Nevada, and New Mexico offer plenty of sun, a booming population catering to the gray hair set, and a libertarian live-and-let-live attitude.
Americans are entering their golden years with more money than their parents could have dreamed of. Retirement is no longer about sitting in God's waiting room, as Florida was once dubbed, playing backgammon and shuffleboard. The West offers people a second chance at life. The key, of course, is having the health to enjoy it.
Health has been a key reason past generations have migrated West. Southern Pacific Railroad advertised it as "the land of health and wealth" during the migration of the late 1800s. Although many looked for economic prosperity, thousands traveled to sanatoriums that were springing up in cities like Colorado Springs, El Paso, Phoenix, and San Diego hoping for relief from tuberculosis or other respiratory ailments. The range of "therapies" depended oil the locale and might include sitting outside, breathing the ocean breeze, or soaking in hot springs.
"Health-seekers came to the Southwest from all over the country in the hope that the desert air and life-giving sunshine would, if not cure, then arrest, their illnesses," Theresa Salazar of the University of Arizona wrote in an exhibit on the development of health in the Southwest. …