South Carolina as a Retirement State: Issues Worth Considering

By Melissa Owen Hawkins


In his book, The New Aging: Politics and Change in America, Fernando Torres-Gil asserts that a "New Aging" is emerging, one shaped by claims upon the government by the generations, diversity within the aging population, and longevity and an increasing life span. Torres-Gil proposes that America has evolved from the concepts of a "Young Aging" (pre-1930), when elders were respected and given leadership positions in society, to a "Modern Aging" (1930 to 1990), when stereotypes of older people as poor, frail, deserving, and disadvantaged were developed, to today's concept of the New Aging, which calls for a drastic change in the view of older people.

Indeed, older adults of today are unique. They are finding new purpose for their later years. They are living longer, are better educated, and are more active, healthy, affluent, and politically astute than ever before. Elders are beginning to realize their potential as students, community servants, mentors, and vital members of their communities. They are more mobile and have a greater tendency to relocate in retirement than previous cohorts.

Moving in retirement, or retirement migration, is not a new concept. Legends of the blue-haired, bingo-loving, elderly Floridians have long been a part of our American culture. What may be news to some however, are the locations considered as potential retirement destinations for the retirees of today. For the last thirty years, Florida has been the number one choice to re-locate for retirees. Closely following Florida are the states California, New Jersey, and Arizona. Interestingly, Florida and California have also ranked in the top five states with the greatest number of older persons moving out.

Reasons other than higher older adult population ratios exist for this out-migration. Studies have shown that a significant number of migrant retirees make several moves in retirement before they decide on a place to settle. Some even choose to return to where they originated their move, where they began the retirement migration process. Others return to a place they consider "home." This may be where they grew up, spent most of their adult lives, or where their children live. This is usually where they want to live out the remainder of their lives.

South Carolina has recently received attention as a retirement destination. During the period from 1985 to 1990, South Carolina ranked sixth in the nation in its net number of migrants aged sixty and over. During that time, 34,251 older people moved to South Carolina and 16,015 moved out, for a net gain of 18,236 people over the age of sixty who moved to South Carolina. According to the 1990 census, most people over the age of sixty who moved out of South Carolina, moved to North Carolina, Florida, or Georgia. The majority of older adults who moved to South Carolina, moved from New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Florida. So, there is great movement to states in the Southeast, both by people moving from other regions and by people re-locating within the southeast.

To some, it seems odd that people would want to move at the time of their retirement. To others, it is quite logical. Retirement has the potential for being a period of decreased responsibilities, increased discretionary time and income, less preoccupation with the pressures placed on younger generations, and one where time can be spent less on trivial activities and more on meaningful ones.

Interestingly, most people of retirement age do not move when they retire. In fact, people of retirement age are about half as likely to move long distances as the rest of the population in the United States. The minority of retirees who do wish to move, often seek to change their lifestyle or re-establish a desired lifestyle that has been altered, because the environment around them has changed. This desire for a change of lifestyle can result in hasty decision making, which causes dissatisfaction with a chosen retirement destination. Dissatisfaction, in turn, leads to a second, and possibly a third move before the migrant retirees are satisfied.

Studies show that most migrant retirees are amenity migrants--looking for settings that will afford a new and better lifestyle. Among the most sought after amenities are a low crime rate, low overall cost of living, mild climate, friendly neighbors, and a major city nearby. Clearly, many traditional small towns offer these amenities. In South Carolina, this point is illustrated by the counties and county groups that were most frequently chosen as retirement destinations from 1985 to 1990. During this five year period, the top four counties or county groups and their net number of migrants over age sixty in South Carolina were Horry (net 4,425); Beaufort, Colleton, and Jasper (net 2,354); Pickens and Oconee (net 1,437); and Charleston (net 1,386).

Amenity retirement migration is associated with the perceived quality of life a locale is thought to offer. Locations that are less crowded, have mountains or water, and a mild climate are usually believed to offer a desirable quality of life. When retirees choose a place which they perceive to offer a high of quality of life and move there, they often decrease the quality of life for the residents living there. This may lead to out-migration among other in-migrant retirees and natives of the area. Reduction of the quality of life in a locale is a vital issue that concerns retirees and community natives alike. Communities must guard against "retiree invasion." Too often, retirees move into an area and never integrate with community natives. Though full integration may never occur, some socialization should be encouraged, especially among people in similar age groups. This intragenerational interaction can lead to strengthened social networks among the older adult population and will lend great comfort to the newcomers as they enter into their later years in a new community. In addition, socialization among natives and newcomers encourages acceptance of diversity and support for a plethora of community issues of concern to all.

The county of Beaufort, South Carolina has a history of division between its wealthy and disadvantaged populations. This separateness has been perpetuated by an influx of in-migrant retirees in recent years. In fact, in the last twenty years, the population of Beaufort has doubled, and much of this has been due to the retirement industry. Today, great disparity remains between natives and in-migrants in levels of income and education. Though progress has been made, community integration has not been achieved. A great potential exists however, as it does in most locations where retirees move. In many communities where in-migrant retirees settle, it may seem that natives and newcomers have little in common. It is imperative however, that both groups realize they have their community in common. In order to share in the culture of the community, in the issues that affect the place they all call home, newcomers and long time residents must come to know one another.

A positive step toward community harmony in Beaufort was taken when new retirees helped support a bond issue that was recently passed. The bond will allow Beaufort County schools to meet their capacity needs through the year 2000. Though the bond concerns the youth of Beaufort, positive relations with the new retirees, as well the characteristics of the newcomers facilitated its approval.

A comparison of the characteristics of the newcomers to Beaufort and the natives of the area can be attained by examining statistics on South Carolina. Beaufort County has the greatest number of high school and college graduates in South Carolina, as well as one of the highest income levels. However, the dichotomy in the county is illustrated by consistently high levels of female headed households, persons twenty five and over without high school degrees, persons below the poverty level, and households receiving public assistance, that lack complete plumbing, and have no vehicle for transportation.

Obviously, diversity exists in all communities, whether retirees move into them or not. Regardless of the characteristics of its members, communities must make the preservation of a high quality of life for all residents a priority. Such considerations must include the prospects for long term and short term quality of life. In addition, South Carolina communities need to investigate the costs of attracting people, as well as the benefits.

The state of Florida offers an example of poor planning for retiree migration. The stereotypes of elderly Floridians were formed for a reason. Florida has no income tax and extremely lenient bankruptcy laws. In the 1970's, Florida gained the identity of being a retirement state, perhaps even "the" retirement state. Indeed Florida has a vast amount of amenities to offer. Unfortunately, state officials took the attitude of "y'all come," rather than, "...wonder what will happen if they all come?" Florida was promoted as a sunny, healthy, inexpensive place to live, and people came. There was a great movement to Florida among the old, young, rich, and poor. In fact, American Demographics reveals that the state's population of older adults has been increasing steadily for the past twenty-five years. It also states that although in-migration of retirees may potentially wane, Florida will have a greater than average population of older adults over the age of seventy-five.

Interestingly, what has followed this steady retirement migration, has been the out-migration of many natives of the state. Now, according to Charles Longino, who recently wrote Retirement Migration In America, many cities in Florida are saturated with crowds and commercialization, and he warns of the potential burdens of providing health care to an increasingly elderly and frail population. Surely the quality of life for many Floridians is less than what it could have been, had there been a community development plan in place. South Carolina must learn from the mistakes of Florida. The characteristics of today's migrant retirees should be examined, but projections about the future should not be overlooked.

Generally, retirees who choose to move often have found that they have fewer attachments and/or commitments to "home." For them, retirement is a time when their careers are complete, their children are living somewhere else, or their friends have moved or passed away. For some older adults, moving may have always been a part of their lifestyle. Many retirees who re-locate are retired from large corporations where they were transferred from one city to another throughout their careers. These retirees are simply accustomed to moving around. On the other hand, many older adults move in retirement because of an image they hold about what retirement should be like. These are the retirees who may become dissatisfied with their retirement destination and may re-locate several times.

According to Longino, the most successful and satisfying moves are accomplished by retirees who have sufficient financial, health, and psychological resources. It is common to find migrant retirees who are younger, more affluent, and in better health than other older adults in the communities to which they move. Though some retirees may re-locate for health reasons, they are usually financially well-off and mentally prepared for such a move. Other pictures of retirees exist as well. In addition to the younger, more active retiree, there are also the older, less dynamic group, and the infirmed or ambulatory group. Decisions must be made about which groups are desirable to attract with the realization that each group will reach the point of dependency due to failing health.

It is sometimes forgotten that several groups exist within the mature population or "market." However, with proper research, planning, and knowledge of a target group within the market, the retirement industry can be extremely profitable. Most retirement migration choices are based on previous vacationing experiences in an area. People often visit a locale for vacations year after year, come to know and enjoy it, and decide to retire there. The retirement and tourism industries can be beneficial to rural communities, like those in South Carolina, because both industries bring money that can be used for further economic development. Counties should examine their population growth over the last several years. If it is little or none, perhaps marketing to retirees would be a viable economic development strategy.

Today's migrant retirees usually have stable income from Social Security and pension benefits. Longino found that spending usually leads to economic development and job creation in the communities where migrants re-locate. In addition, retirees have the potential to increase the tax base in communities. However, as discussed earlier, proper and successful community integration must take place in order for those new in-migrants to support community causes.

Communities should not be fooled into believing that wealthy retired people are going to move to their communities and support their various political issues. Nor should communities believe that all in-migrant retirees are rich or inclined to spend money within their immediate surroundings. With a neighboring larger city, new migrants may be just as inclined to call the large city home as they would the small town to which they have just moved. This is where community integration strategies must come into play. New residents and long time residents must interact with one another. Opportunities for growth, volunteerism, and socialization should be provided. Otherwise, an "us versus them" mentality may develop, leading to community discord, lack of political support, and out-migration.

Most retirees of today are younger than those of previous retiree groups. These retirees are able to retire early for several reasons. Most are members of the post World War II generation. This is the generation who bought homes in the 1950's and have been able to sell them for three to four times what they paid. They were the individuals who pushed for retirement and pension benefits and got them. Because they grew up during The Great Depression, they learned to save money for more difficult times. Many of them will have money to leave to their children, the Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomers, in turn, will have the potential to afford the empty homes in the retirement villages that their parents will leave behind.

In planning for the future however, South Carolina must consider the traditional stereotypes of the Boomers. They are a generation of conspicuous consumers. They have also been characterized as valuing personal space, convenience, and quality more highly than their parents' generation. Whether this means they will be willing to save and invest their inheritance in order to insure the type of retirement they desire, is unknown. Regardless, South Carolina must not only guard against unplanned and uncontrolled retirement development that will be destructive for a quality of life, it must realize that generations like the Boomers and their parents will quickly come to pass.

Early retirement with the notion of a pension as one's predominant income is becoming less common. No longer will people who have been working for companies or corporations for most of their lives be able to accumulate the pensions of previous generations. Homes will not be sold for three and four times of what they were purchased among future generations. Over the next ten to twenty years, early retirement will become nearly obsolete. The result will be fewer people able to afford moving at retirement, much less even taking an early retirement. People will be living longer and will have to work longer to survive in their old age. This is compounded by the uncertainty which surrounds the government programs which have traditionally aided the aging population.

In 1988, the largest share of income for the majority of older people was Social Security (38%), with assets representing the second largest share (25%). Futurists expect that the standard patterns of life expectancy and inflation will jeopardize the financial well-being of even the reasonably well off. Economic recessions and inflation have the potential to reduce pension assets, and the increasing cost of health-care could reduce living standards for many older adults. It appears evident that the economic status for those who will soon be older adults is on the decline. As retirees choose South Carolina as their new home, the state is faced with several questions: Should South Carolina encourage the in-migration of retirees with pension and economic assets to bolster local economies? Is South Carolina preparing for the future infirmity of those retirees by placing health care facilities within retirement communities? What happens if and when retirees become frail and dependent and must rely on public resources for health and long-term care? How will communities respond to the political voice of large numbers of retirees, especially if their opinions conflict with local politics? Should states allow the elderly to carry over the lower property rates afforded them elsewhere? Will South Carolina be left with a glut of infrastructure when retirees can no longer afford to move into the luxurious communities designed for them? Is South Carolina considering the preservation of a quality of life for all of its citizens? Retirees themselves will have a number of considerations, including whether the retirement income they budgeted will suffice if they live an additional 20 to 30 years. Numerous questions and considerations exist for the state of South Carolina, its communities, and the entire population of older adults. Whether these questions and considerations are taken with the fortitude they deserve will remain to be seen. At the extremes, it is the choice of South Carolina whether it desires to remain a haven of quaint and charming towns and a reservoir of natural beauty or a retirement dumping ground. Like so many choices, however, there are many alternatives. These need to be identified and discussed.


Sidebar: Myth and Reality of the Baby Boom Generation

Following World War II, there was a "boom" in births in the United States. Today, these 77 million "baby boomers," born between 1946 and 1964, comprise one-third of the American population. They are a generation of trend setters, establishing new movements and styles simply by virtue of their size. They have been stereotyped as liberal, antigovernment, and free thinking. In their lifetime, the boomers caused unprecedented growth in elementary and secondary school enrollment, and in higher education as well. Because of the boomers, the American labor force welcomed 30 million workers between 1965 and 1980.

Although all baby boomers are not alike, they are a group unique to American generations preceding them. Boomers have a higher divorce rate than previous generations, but it appears that the younger boomers may be learning from the older members of their cohort or age group. American Demographics (November 1993) reveals that boomers tend to get married a at later age, have fewer if any children, and include more working women. They have been a generation who has had to compete against one another for jobs, thus leading them to be a mobile population, willing to go where the jobs are. The combination of their mobility, career goals, education, and delayed families has displaced them from traditional patterns of social networks and extended families. Coincidentally, these are the social factors that have given most of their parents reason to stay in their communities. Therefore, in the future, when the boomers themselves become old, frail, sick or dependent, they will have to rely on other, non-traditional sources for assistance.

The oldest boomers turned fifty in 1996. According to the December 1995 issue of American Demographics, this may matter very little to the boomers. They have always considered themselves to be young and will probably continue in that tradition. They are the group who altered American consumption habits by popularizing toys and computers among adults. They have had little time to consider old age or retirement because they have been busy seeking self-fulfillment, becoming educated, and not "settling down" until their late thirties and forties. Preoccupied with career goals, delaying children, and buying a home, this group will soon encounter the aging of their parents. This will awaken them to the problems with the U.S. health-care system and may force them to consider their own futures as older adults.

Surely as boomers age, they will be the force to change the way Americans view old age. For example, it has only been since 1980 that fifty per cent of Americans over age 55 have had a high school diploma. Prior to that, the "older generation" had generally been a group considered to have little formal education. On the other hand, eighty-seven per cent of the oldest boomers have their high school diploma, and one out of four baby boomers has a college degree, with over half of the boomers having some college experience.

Statistics show that boomers are not affluent, with only 3.5 million having household incomes over $50,000. Their current spending patterns however, oppose this characteristic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the age group that the boomers currently occupy (35 to 44) and the age group that they are moving into (45 to 54) spends more of their household income on items such as books, entertainment, cosmetics, new vehicles, restaurant meals, and non business computers than any other age group in America. Of course by the sheer size of the boomer cohort, their spending is likely to be greater than other age groups. However, as boomers move into their senior years, will spending on these items continue, or will their spending be on other items? What new trends will older boomers set? Will they taper their spending habits to accommodate upcoming retirement?

Boomers may enter old age in good financial position. They have adjusted their lives to adverse economic situations, facing these conditions by remaining single longer, and having fewer children. Many have good pension coverage and strong investments. Unfortunately, their homes will not increase in value as their parents' did, and though some may increase, there will be more old boomers with homes to sell, than people available to buy them. Boomers will come face to face with the practices of their youth and deal with a longer life span that could potentially impoverish them. The baby boomers have always been the trend setting group in American society. They have been observed from the cradle, through their teen years, and into adulthood. They will inevitably change they way America views old age as they dominate the country's population in next century.


Biographical Information

Melissa Owen Hawkins is a Research Associate in the Retirement and Intergenerational Studies Laboratory at the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University. She directs grant projects in the Laboratory which focus on issues such as retiree volunteerism and community attachment, to assess the social, economic, and political impacts of in-migrant retirees across the state.


Dortch, S. (1995). "Sunshine State Forecast," American Demographics, 17, (12), pp. 4-6.

Gibson, C. (1993). "The Four Baby Booms, American Demographics, 15, (11). pp. 36-40.

Longino, C. F. (1995). Retirement Migration In America. Houston, TX: Vacation Publications.

Russell, C. (1995). "The Baby Boom Turns 50," American Demographics, 17, (12), pp. 22-33.

Torres-Gil, F. (1992). The New Aging: Politics and Change in America. Westport, CT: Auburn House Publications.

Hawkins, Melissa Owen. "South Carolina as a Retirement State: Issues Worth Considering," The South Carolina Policy Forum Magazine, Vol. 7, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 26-33.