People have a lot of ideas about Florida's 50-plus population. Trust me, as AARP's Florida state director, I hear them all.
But if you don't think "economic opportunity" when you think of those of us with gray hair, think again. As Florida historians like Gary Mormino have pointed out, attracting retirees has been a foundation of our economy since World War II ended, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and bringing billions into the state every month.
It's vital for Florida's future that we continue to enjoy the benefits of a large 50 and over population — but it won't happen automatically. The current and future generations of 50- to 60-year-olds have very different needs and expectations than previous generations.
And not only is Florida unfocused on attracting the next wave of relocating 50-plus Floridians-to-be, but key business and political decisionmakers aren't even sure we should want them.
Because this is an election year, this is a great time to debate this issue. At the first conference I attended as AARP Florida's state director, I heard an economist observe: "The only jobs that old people create are changing bedpans." At first I thought such views were a fluke.
The next day, I heard a developer say his business wasn't trying to attract older people, because transportation and health care costs were too high. At another event, an economist bemoaned the damage that the Great Recession had done to the state's real estate market. But at least there was one bright side, the economist said: Older retirees were no longer flocking to the state to buy homes. That's a bright side?
The truth is, 50-plus residents are a big net gain for Florida or any other state:
• While there are many older people of modest means, in general older consumers wield enormous economic power. In 2012, people age 50 or older accounted for 51 percent of all consumer spending in the United States. Eighty percent of the wealth controlled by individuals in the United States is held by people over 50.
• Older people increasingly create jobs and businesses. About one in four entrepreneurs in 2012 was age 50-plus. Merrill Lynch found in 2013 that 71 percent of those intending to retire planned to include some work in retirement, and just more than half planned an "encore career" that combined deep personal meaning with some additional income.
• Older people add much more to the state than they cost. Even in terms of state taxes, Floridians over 50 add $2,627 more per person to the state than they cost in services.
• Currently, Social Security benefits alone are responsible for creating and sustaining 738,000 Florida jobs each year. By comparison, when Florida's tourism industry has its first 100 million tourist year, it will be responsible for creating 122,000 jobs. And Florida Tax Watch recently found that an effort to recruit 1,000 new retirees a year over the next decade would create more than 5,700 new jobs
• States such as North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee have ramped up recruitment of relocating boomers. No Florida state agency is assigned to attract relocating retirees.
That last point is critical. If Florida was simply sitting out any other economic development competition, business and political leaders would be outraged. Yet because Florida has had success in the past attracting 50-plus residents, it's as though we assume they'll keep coming here forever.
The fact is, the boomer generation thinks differently and has different priorities than previous generations. A big part of making Florida communities more attractive to 50-plus residents lies in how communities are designed and how state services mesh with the needs of older people.
That's one reason AARP Florida has reached out to leaders in St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and elsewhere, raising awareness of the 50-plus market and how to make our communities work for those who have gone a little gray.
There's great news. Surveys show that relocating boomers want many of the same things that the much-sought-after "young creatives" want: a lively cultural scene, restaurants, museums and opportunities for lifelong learning. The No. 1 must-have is a top-notch health care system, which benefits people of all ages.
AARP Florida is urging Florida voters and opinion leaders to press candidates in the 2014 elections to provide specific details on what they'd do to attract and retain 50-plus residents, and also how candidates for office would make Florida communities more livable for people of all ages.
Jeff Johnson is AARP's Florida state director. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.