The New Abnormal

Photography by Michael Short By Brad Edmondson January 1, 2011

Sarasota isn’t normal, but I didn’t always know that. Growing up here, I never wondered why so many people at the mall had gray hair. I thought that every American town had a beach where people talked in funny accents and a hospital the size of a military base. These things are normal, if you live here. But compared with the rest of the country, Sarasota is an outlier. Some parts of the county are fairly close to national demographic averages, while others are among the most extreme places in the United States. 

Sarasota’s economy has always depended on tourists and migrants coming here and spending lots of money. This unusual economic foundation gives the county its character and for many years bathed it in prosperity. But it is also its greatest weakness. Sarasota’s weak point, which has become painfully clear since 2007, is a boom-and-bust economy that does not create jobs unless lots of new people show up every year.

 When the last significant economic bust happened here in the mid-1970s, Sarasota County was home to about one-third as many people as it has today. This means that two-thirds of us have not ever really seen the bottom drop out before. So welcome to reality, everybody! The recession walloped Sarasota not only by slowing down our economy, but also by stopping the county’s population growth. We actually experienced a population loss—although a very small one—between July 2008 and July 2009, according to estimates by the Census Bureau. Currently the county is holding at about 370,000 people. And if the stream of migrants should ever dry up completely, our population will surely decline.

The bureau says there were 3,161 births in Sarasota County last year, but there were also 5,136 deaths. Newcomers occupied all but 102 of those 1,975 empty chairs. We saw a net gain of 995 people moving into the county from elsewhere in the U.S. in 2008-09, and another 822 moving in from overseas, according to the bureau estimates. 

The vast majority of the world’s long-distance movers are young adults looking for jobs. But the typical newcomer to Sarasota County is someone well past his or her 50th birthday who is looking for relaxation. This is very strange, because most Americans are content to grow old in their hometowns. In fact, less than one-fifth of people in their 50s say they will even consider moving across state lines when they retire.

Snowbirds are different from normal people in at least two ways. First, they are footloose: They have happily bargained away their family and community connections in exchange for warmth and sunshine. This might help to explain why 17.5 percent of adults in the City of Sarasota are divorced, compared with a national average of 10.5 percent.  

Another basic difference comes down to cash. Many Sarasota snowbirds are wealthy enough to live pretty much anywhere they want. For example, the pre-tax median adjusted gross income (AGI) of people who moved to Sarasota from suburban Connecticut in 1999-2000 was almost three times as high as the median AGI of people who had been here more than one year. That’s a fairly typical, long-standing difference. 

On the South Trail in 1970, my classmates and I used to marvel at the size of the Eldorados and Town Cars that passed our school bus on their way to the early-bird special at the Oyster Bar. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that today those folks tend to drive European cars and eat at Michael’s On East.  

Ah, but 1970 and 2000 were good years. A deluge of Yankees and their cash arrived right on schedule, washing new money into our economy and making the jobs grow. Everything is great here as long as that happens. But a recession can dry up Sarasota’s economy as suddenly as a drought dries up a wetland, because our economy depends on discretionary spending. As places go, Sarasota is a little like Las Vegas or Aspen: It’s glamorous and exceptional, but not essential. A lot of folks here like to make fun of cold, boring places like North Dakota when they’re strolling on the beach. But did you know that the unemployment rate in Bismarck is less than 3 percent? Right now in Sarasota, at least 15 percent of workers are either looking for a job or have given up. The laugh is on us.

Still, things aren’t completely weird here. While affluent retirees give Sarasota its image and fertilize its economy, they do not dominate our population. About 30 percent of county residents are aged 65 or older (compared with a national average of 13 percent). That’s an unusually high percentage, but most residents of Sarasota County are in the working ages, and 16 percent are children under age 18 (compared with a national average of 24 percent). 

The truth is that each neighborhood in Sarasota County is inhabited by different kinds of people who co-exist peacefully as long as the annual flood of money shows up. The tough times we are experiencing are like a storm that washes away the sand around concrete pilings, exposing cracks in the foundation. Except on Longboat Key, where that never happens.


Retirement Royalty

If you divide the life cycle into thirds and count up the people in each category, you’ll find that most places in the United States and Florida have more young people (under age 35) than they do middle-aged people (aged 35 to 64), and more middle-aged people than they do old people (aged 65 and older). This rule applies to North Port, where the county’s most affordable housing is located, and to many sections of the City of Sarasota.

But on Longboat Key, there are 20 residents aged 65 and older for every resident under age 35. The national pattern is also reversed in Englewood, Venice, Gulf Gate/Osprey, and the unincorporated eastern part of Sarasota County. In all these places, the dominant age group is 65-plus, and children are relatively hard to find.  

What makes Longboat even stranger is that the oldest people there are also the richest. In most of the country, a person’s income peaks in his or her 40s and declines steeply after age 65. But the median household income in Longboat Key is about $130,000, or two-and-a-half times as high as the median for Sarasota County (which is about $50,200, just a tiny bit below the national average). The median household income in Venice is near the national average, which is also strange. In a place where so many of the householders are over 65, it should be lower.

And the median income is far above the national average in Gulf Gate/Osprey and the eastern part of Sarasota County, the other districts where retirees rule. 

The City of Sarasota is like the county in miniature. It has glitzy neighborhoods along the water where very few people have ever faced economic hardship (like Cherokee Park), historic neighborhoods for professionals who work and play downtown (Gillespie Park), plainer neighborhoods for working families (South Gate), and poor neighborhoods (Newtown). But no matter where they live, Sarasota’s workers depend on retirees for their money. Most of the county’s jobs (56 percent) are in construction, retail trade, healthcare, and accommodations and food service. These four sectors claim just 43 percent of jobs in the national economy. And despite significant efforts in recent years to attract manufacturing and high-tech jobs to Sarasota, the local dependence on tourists and retirees is growing. In 1998, those four sectors claimed only 47 percent of Sarasota’s jobs.

Most Gulf Coast retirees are a bit like the English gentry. Our workers serve at the gentry’s pleasure, and their incomes depend on the assets the lords and ladies of the condos choose to spend. When the ruling class chooses not to come, or not to spend, ordinary folks here immediately feel the pain.

Snowbirds are also why Sarasota, one of the southernmost counties in the United States, has very little to do with the American South. Forty years ago, when Osprey’s Hoosier Bar was a relatively new place, most of the snowbirds in Sarasota came from the Midwest. That isn’t true any more. When The New York Times bought the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1982, it was a signal that New Yorkers had discovered Sarasota. People come here from everywhere now. They’re still coming from Muncie, but now they’re also coming from Mexico City.

The net gain or loss in interstate migrants to Sarasota fluctuates a lot from year to year, but the places our migrants come from change more slowly. You can see this in annual reports from the Internal Revenue Service that count the number of tax filers and dependents in each county who reported a different address in the previous year. They show that in 2007-08, 37 percent of interstate migrants to Sarasota came from the Northeast; 30 percent came from the Midwest; 24 percent from the South; and 9 percent from the West. The big Northern states spoke loudest. About 8 percent of interstate migrants to Sarasota County in 2007-08 came from New York, 6 percent came from New Jersey, 5 percent each from Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio, and 4 percent from Illinois. These six states accounted for one-third of our snowbird supply.  

Another 200 taxpayers and dependents moved to Sarasota from overseas in 2007-08, and the bureau’s estimates indicate that a significant additional number, perhaps another 600, moved here from another country but did not file a tax return. Taxpayers and their dependents are merely the wealthiest channel in the migration stream. And in Sarasota, they can be very wealthy indeed. You can get a sense of this from another IRS database that keeps track of each county’s sources of income. In Florida in 2007, the aggregate income from dividends and interest was about 12 percent as much as the state’s income from wages and salaries. Sarasota County saw about $1.9 billion in income from dividends and interest and $5.3 billion from wages, for a ratio of 36 percent, or three times higher than the state average. Only two other Florida counties had a higher ratio of interest and dividends to wages and earnings than Sarasota did—Collier (that’s Naples) and Indian River (Vero Beach). This is just one of the reasons why Sarasota’s retirees live in a different world than the people who serve them. 


A Growing Cultural Divide

Like the affluent suburbs that feed it, Sarasota County is much whiter than the U.S. as a whole. But a recent influx of young workers is giving our complexion a slightly darker hue. Nationally, about 65 percent of the population is non-Hispanic and white. That proportion for Sarasota County was 93 percent in 1990, 90 percent in 2000, and 85 percent in 2009. The gap is narrowing here because Latino migrants to Sarasota are likely to have children living with them—and because Anglo migrants rarely do.

Another strange thing about Sarasota is that our oldest residents almost all belong to one cultural caste. Hispanics are 7 percent of the total population of Sarasota County (compared with a national average of 16 percent), African-Americans are 4 percent (compared with 12 percent), Asian-Americans are 1 percent (compared to 4 percent), and the remainder say they have two racial backgrounds or are from some other race. But 95 percent of Sarasota County residents aged 65 and older describe themselves as non-Hispanic and white.

Remember Dennis the Menace, the incorrigible boy on the funny pages who is a constant irritant to his grumpy old neighbor, Mr. Wilson? What do you think Mr. Wilson would do if the boy running through his rose bushes was named Rashaan or Rodriego? Only about two-thirds of the county’s preschoolers, and three-quarters of its schoolchildren, come from Anglo families. Sarasota’s schools have been multi-cultural for a while now. But many retirees in the county can’t grasp this change, because their cultural norms are tied to an America that is fading away. Bridging racial and cultural divides is one of Sarasota’s biggest challenges.

Sarasota’s leisure class and its working people may live on opposite sides of a high fence, but they also need each other. Retirees and tourists need people to support the lifestyle they came here to enjoy, and working families buy their groceries with the money snowbirds spend. That is why any slowdown in retirement migration will eventually spread to younger households. Enrollment in Sarasota County public schools declined from 42,121 in September 2006 to 40,680 in May 2010. Sluggish job growth means that fewer young families will move in, and it also means more working families will move away to places where the job prospects are brighter. Newcomers whose ties to Florida are relatively weak are likely to go back to their families and old friends when things don’t work out, no matter how old they are. The University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) doesn’t expect a migration turnaround until 2011 at the earliest. 


The Next Sarasota: Less Money, More Entrepreneurs?

Back in the early 1970s, I used to ride a balloon-tired bike up and down the streets of Nokomis, delivering newspapers to people in singlewide mobile homes and two-bedroom cinderblock bungalows. Thrift (or, if you prefer, cheapness) was a point of pride in this neighborhood. The folks who lived there had Social Security checks and lemon trees, but not much else. They often paid me with coins or small bills they kept in glass jars. I think we might be headed toward an updated version of those downscale days. 

The current recession is forcing a lot of baby boomers to shelve or downsize their retirement plans. This means that even after the economy becomes healthy again, there may not be as many big spenders on Siesta Key as there were a decade ago. A recent study by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research estimated that working-age families in the U.S. (where the householder is aged 32 to 64) are currently short on their retirement planning by $6.6 trillion dollars (yes, that’s with a “t”), which works out to about $90,000 per household. Their National Retirement Risk Index for 2009 estimates that 51 percent of working households are not on track to retire at age 65, a sharp increase from a few years ago.

Even 42 percent of high-income households are currently falling short. So sure, there are 77 million baby boomers now aged 47 to 65, and many of them could move to Florida over the next two decades. But thanks to the recession, many more boomers will need to keep working well past the age of 65. If they retire, they’re going to do it on the cheap. 

While we’re piling on the bad news, there’s one more thing you should know. Spending on healthcare is heavily concentrated in the last few years of life, and the way we pay for healthcare is about to change. In the United States as a whole, 6 percent of the population is aged 75 or older. In Sarasota County, that share is well over 16 percent. One of the main reasons retirees spend so freely these days is that the federal government pays for their healthcare. But Medicare’s trustees now project that the program will run out of money in 18 years; before the healthcare bill passed in March, the program was projected to flatline in seven years. And some folks say that Medicare will collapse sooner unless there are cuts. Whenever Medicare benefits are cut, spending at Sarasota’s malls and restaurants will also go down, because the demand for healthcare is not very flexible. If you have to pay for prescriptions or an operation yourself, you will cut back on nonessentials to make it possible.

Paying for healthcare can also be a problem in Palmetto, where 20 percent of the population is Hispanic and 24 percent of the population is children, or in the City of North Port, which now has more people than the City of Sarasota. Working families in these places are struggling to hang on, keep their jobs and care for their kids. We need to do more to encourage the growth of stable jobs these folks can depend on. The last few years have shown that building houses on spec and selling stuff to tourists isn’t enough.

At the same time, it isn’t realistic for us to expect a new meal ticket to emerge any time soon. Tourists and retirees will probably continue to be Sarasota’s economic base for at least the next several decades. The really interesting opportunities, however, might come from the people who are already here. Sarasota’s lopsided demographic profile makes it a great place to test new products and services aimed at older consumers. As boomers age, the proportion of the U.S. population that is aged 65 or older will increase from 13 percent today to about 19 percent in 20 years. So if it sells in Sarasota now, it might sell everywhere in a few years. This is the idea behind the Institute for the Ages, an initiative of the group Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence (SCOPE) that is currently raising start-up funds.

Eventually, good times will return to Sarasota. Tourists will show up as long as it’s warm and sunny in January, and it’s a safe bet that some of them will want to stay. But the next boom in retirement housing is likely to look quite different, because baby boomers’ pinched pensions will not allow many of them to buy the monstrous domiciles that were so popular here in the 1990s and 2000s. Like retired factory workers of the 1960s, many boomers will be looking for places to live that are safe and affordable. The difference is, instead of drinking shots at the Hoosier Bar and then weaving home in their Detroit Big Iron Sedans to watch Lawrence Welk on TV, boomers are excited about taking in the latest indie masterpiece at Burns Court Cinema, savoring one high-quality mojito at a sidewalk café on Main Street, and then riding their bikes home on a well-lit path. Actually, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?


Brad Edmondson, the former editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine and founding vice president of, is a regular contributor to national magazines, including the publications of AARP. A 1976 graduate of Pine View School, he lives in Ithaca, N.Y.


Percent of interstate immigrants to Sarasota County from six top states of origin Source: IRS, 2007-08

New York




New Jersey










Longboat Key Retirees

Theresa and Bob Simmons

Ages > 50 and 68

Came from > Chicago

Arrived > 2002

Biggest surprise > Warmth and friendship of people

Enjoying > Mote, Selby Gardens, Westcoast Black Theater Troupe

Theresa Simmons, 50, says she and her husband, Bob, 68, first moved to Longboat Key for the obvious reasons: “pristine beauty, incredible sunsets and undisturbed nature.” Family ties also played a role. Theresa’s sister lived in Sarasota, and Bob, a former vice president and consultant in the hospital supply industry, vacationed at the Colony resort with his kids 40 years ago. So when the Chicago-area couple started looking at retirement options, Longboat was the clear favorite.

After they moved here in 2002, though, something surprising happened: The natural beauty took a back seat. “It’s the people more than the weather that we’ve fallen in love with,” says Theresa. They found themselves forming friendships with people from all over the country—even the world—people with vastly different backgrounds and experiences, all converging on Longboat to share a time in life defined by leisure and relaxation.

Theresa says she’s amazed by how warmly people treat each other: “You don’t have to feel like you’re constantly trying to impress people, or worry about dressing up to go to Publix because of who you might run into,” she says.

Yet as privileged and idyllic as the island may be, Theresa says Longboat is anything but isolated. Most of her island friends are quite connected to the Sarasota community. She and Bob frequently visit Mote Aquarium and Selby Gardens, and they are supporters of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.—Beau Denton


Percent by age for places in Sarasota County Source: CENSUS BUREAU, 2000



Baby boomers

Elliott Himelfarb & Janet Minker

Ages > 57 and 56

Came from > Washington, D.C. area

Arrived > 2009

Enjoying > Kayaking, the beach, gardening, arts and culture.

Work Status> Working part-time, no plans to retire yet.

After living near Washington, D.C., for most of their lives, Elliott Himelfarb, 57, and his wife, Janet Minker, 56, were accustomed to the bustle of a big city. But two years ago, they realized they were ready for a change. Janet’s cousin plays for the Sarasota Orchestra, so they’ve been visiting for the past 15 years; moving here seemed like a natural next step. “Sarasota has everything to offer but on a smaller scale [than D.C], so it’s easier to take advantage of it,” says Elliott. In contrast, getting to the Kennedy Center or D.C. museums could be “a logistical feat,” he says.

 Their move has signaled the beginning of a “somewhat transitional” phase in life, he says. While not quite retired, Elliott says they are “definitely on the way there.” Both still work part-time. She’s an art designer and social media consultant, primarily for healthcare groups based in D.C., and he’s a residential construction project manager currently working on several Sarasota houses, including one they’re building for themselves on Lido Key.

Even so, their focus has become “less business-oriented and more about self-fulfillment,” says Elliott. They spend more time cooking, walking the beach, kayaking, sailing, even gardening—their plants are much happier here than in D.C., he says with a laugh. And they’ve loved involving themselves in community affairs. Last year Janet helped organize an arts expo at Mote Aquarium, and she also worked on November’s Owen Burns celebration.—Beau Denton



Extreme Demographics The City of Sarasota is home to 20,000 men, 22,000 women, and 10,000 children. It isn’t a normal American town. Here’s why:

                                                                        Sarasota           United States

Aged 17 and younger                                      13%      18%

Aged 65 or older                                               21%      13%

Women who are married                                    37%      48%

Widowed                                                          15%      10%

Divorced/separated                                           21%      14%

Households that are a single person                   40%      30%

Children who are non-Hispanic & white              36%      55%

Population 65+ who are non-Hispanic & white    90%      80%

Native Floridians                                              30%      n/a


Source: CENSUS BUREAU, 2006-08 American Community Survey



Hispanic Family

Giovanni and Patricia Vesia

Ages > 46 (Giovanni), 38; kids, four and one

Came from > Venezuela

Arrived > 2005

Enjoying > Hispanic community, the beach, working out at the Y (Giovanni)

biggest challenges > Learning English, finding work

Five years ago, Patricia Vesia and her husband, Giovanni, left Venezuela, where she was a dentist and he was a paramedic. They were ready to start a family, and Venezuela was too congested and crime-ridden, they say; they had visited Sarasota and loved that it was “quiet” and “safe.” With their limited English and without American medical certification, Patricia had to take a job as a dental assistant, while Giovanni struggled to find work in construction. They lived with Patricia’s sister before moving into an apartment.

Now 38, Patricia speaks near fluent English. And though Giovanni, 46, isn’t yet as comfortable with the language, he’s been promoted to construction supervisor, “so now he’s learning more and more,” Patricia says. Their social circle centers on St. Jude’s Catholic Church, which has a large contingent of fellow ex-pat Venezuelans.

 “It’s not just the Hispanic community [that has welcomed them],” Patricia points out. “The people from here, too, they treat us really nice.” And they say Sarasota is a great place to raise their children: four-year-old Patricia Antonella (who loves the beach) and one-year-old Giovanni Alexander, who both celebrate birthdays in late December. “We planned that,” Patricia explains, “because my parents come every December for Christmas.”

They hope to enroll in academic and certification programs to regain the careers they had in Venezuela. But whatever happens, Patricia insists, Sarasota is their home.

“The first company Giovanni worked for moved to Kissimmee,” she says. “We went up there but…no. We like it here.”—Hannah Wallace


Lonely City

There may be a reason ABC set Cougar Town, featuring a middle-aged Courteney Cox on the prowl for younger men, in Sarasota County. We’re not only one of the very oldest counties in the country, we also have more single people and single households than most other places. This is especially true in the City of Sarasota, where 17.4 percent of adults are divorced (national average: 10.6) and 40 percent of the 28,000 households are a single person living alone. Women are even more alone than men, since they live longer. Only 37 percent of the women in the city are married; 15 percent are widows and 21 percent are divorced or separated. Indeed, the archetypal downtown resident is probably an older woman living alone.

Men or women, these solo residents represent an unusually high number of people looking for company. Those hoping to revitalize Sarasota’s downtown would do well to create welcoming spaces and activities for singles—especially for older singles. Such planning would put the city on the forefront of where the country is heading, since single-person households (more than 70 percent are aged 45 or older) are the fastest-growing household type in the United States, now comprising about 27.5 percent of all households. Places that offer a sense of community tend to be prosperous places, so building a way for more people to find connections could also build Sarasota’s bottom line.


Percent 65+

Sarasota County compared to national average 

Source: CENSUS BUREAU projections

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