Not Your Grandmother’s Sarasota-Manatee

By Susan Burns Photography by Jon Crispin January 1, 2011


Few people enjoy poring over pages of population charts, but Brad Edmondson, who was born and raised in Nokomis and graduated from Pine View School here, can’t wait until that once-a-decade event when the new census numbers come out. Now living in Ithaca, N.Y., Edmondson, 51, sees the human and societal stories in the numbers, and lately has been tracking how America is being transformed as it ages and becomes more multicultural. We asked Edmondson about the population trends that will affect our region in the decade ahead.


What are the most important demographic trends for our region?

Interstate migration is one, and it’s down sharply because it is so dependent on economic opportunity. Migrants come here looking for a retirement spot, but a lot of people still come for work. Right now you’re seeing healthy migration into Texas because it has low unemployment and high job creation. Florida’s job creation is one of the worst, and it’s likely to last, in part because of the difficulty of getting rid of foreclosed housing. Even if demand picks up, Stan Smith of the University of Florida’s Bureau for Economic and Business Research is not expecting a turnaround any time soon.


Plus, the number of people moving out has been increasing steadily for a decade. People say it’s because Florida is becoming more expensive and because a lot of Florida residents have weak social ties, so when they have a reversal of fortune they’re more likely to move on.


Any other big ones?

Healthcare will be the big deal in Florida for the rest of our lives, particularly in Sarasota-Bradenton, which is so oriented toward people who consume a lot of healthcare. Paying for it is going to be an enormous big deal. Social Security and Medicare claim about one-third of Federal spending, and it’s simply not going to be possible to get the deficits down without cutting benefits. Whenever benefits are cut, it will have an effect way beyond the people who get the checks. It will impact consumer spending at every business in Sarasota and Bradenton.


How has the recession changed retirement patterns?

Retirement migrants are going to be fundamentally different after the recession. There are a whole lot fewer people headed for a comfortable retirement than there were four years ago. Fewer baby boomers are planning to move to Florida or anywhere else. Even when the economy comes back, a lot of baby boomers are going to have to rebuild their retirement accounts. They have more education than previous generations. They’ll craft part-time jobs.

Access to financing is another issue. When people have difficulty getting financing, they’re more likely to start off really small [which means more mom-and-pop businesses.] Another interesting trend is that the rate of business formation is higher among women and minorities than white men.


We’re looking at a future of retirement housing that’s much smaller and simpler. You won’t see these enormous concrete structures on the keys. Baby boomers are famous for convincing themselves that whatever they’re doing is really great and clever and that they’re really wonderful for doing it. They’ll see downsizing as something they want. That’s why I talk about cohousing. It’s cheap, but it allows you to have the basics of a high-quality life. People dreaming of coming to Florida will be looking for alternatives like that.


Any surprising trends?

People are going to be very surprised about the extent to which a multicultural society is growing up within their midst. In past decades, the growth of the Hispanic population was overwhelmingly concentrated in the biggest cities, so in a place like Sarasota it wasn’t a big story. Now the Hispanic and Asian populations are spreading; you can see Mexican grocery stores and Indian supermarkets everywhere once you start looking for them. We’re seeing the development of a new America that is a whole lot more diverse than most Anglos realize.


The census reflects a decade in which there was an enormous growth in income and then a collapse. Probably you’ll be looking at households having only a little bit more money in 2010 than in 2000, so you’ll be looking at a lot of dreams being deferred. There will be a whole generation of kids whose start could be delayed for years.


A third big trend is the relative economic power of women and men. You’ll see many, many households where the breadwinner is female and the male will be of secondary economic importance. The idea that the man should be the leader of the pack has eroded very quickly.


Are we becoming more multicultural?

It’s more accurate to think of it as a generational succession. People under 30 are comfortable with the idea of a multicultural society and have fundamentally different attitudes toward cultural differences than people in their 60s do. You can see this generational divide in attitudes toward gay marriage. Opposition is very strong among people 60 and older. But if you’re under 40, the standard response is, what’s the big deal? Young adults have never lived in a world where homosexuality was not discussed.


What businesses will do well this decade?

Anything that makes a baby boomer feel younger and less lonely will do extremely well. I’ve been reporting on loneliness and how people in their 50s and 60s find new partners for AARP Magazine. I ask them, “How did you find him/her?” They’re saying, “I’m a little embarrassed, but I found him through an Internet dating site.” That’s becoming a mainstream deal. Anything that encourages people to get together and find each other, or to forget their aches and pains, will do really well. If I were a business owner in Sarasota, I would be thinking that way.


Sarasotans are talking about creating a national think tank on aging called the Institute for the Ages. What do you think about that?

I don’t think Sarasota and Manatee have an advantage over any other place in research on longevity or aging on the medical side. The advantage comes from developing products and services that build on the social networks of older people, like cohousing. I think the Institute should focus on the sociological aspects of aging. How do people date when they’re 64 and they don’t go to church?


What sets us apart from other regions around the country?

This gets said all the time, but it’s important. The big asset Sarasota and Manatee have, the foundation of the area’s economy, is the natural environment. Sprawl needs to be reframed as a threat to the long-term economic viability of the region. Open-space protection, clean air, water and wildlife are economic assets. They don’t show up on balance sheets, but they are the reason why people move here. People in business need to take that to heart. The health of Sarasota Bay is really important. We need to give our children a place where mullet jump at dusk and people can eat the fish they pull out of the water. If you want to see what Florida looks like when you do it wrong, go to West Palm Beach. Sarasota and Bradenton still have a chance to do it right.


Brad Edmondson was the founding vice president of and editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., and is a regular contributor to national magazines, and since 2002 has written for AARP. More information is at


Save the date

Attend the Florida Boomer Lifestyle Conference Biz941 is a sponsor of the Ringling College of Art and Design Florida Boomer Lifestyle Conference, March 9-10, 2011. The conference will focus on “Healthy Living by Design” and cater to marketing and business executives whose companies offer products and services aimed at baby boomers. For information and to register, go to
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