A Glimpse of Older America

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The politicians and power brokers of this central Florida town don't like to acknowledge it, but underneath the manicured, tree-lined surface lies the economy of an aging America's future.

The Lakeland area is not a retirement community, dotted with shuffleboard courts and senior centers, but the businesses that cluster here reflect the subtle influence of a population that is markedly older than the current national average.

Polk Community College may attract ambitious young students, as college President J. Larry Durrence says, but they're training to be nurses or respiratory therapists. His wife, an attorney, specializes in "elder law."

Nearly a third of Maureen Shaw's florist business comes either from out-of-state children sending flowers to their retired parents or seniors sending condolence bouquets. Keith DeLoach grew up here. After West Point, the Special Forces and combat in Afghanistan, the 32-year-old just moved back to open a financial services firm -- largely to help retirees stretch their savings.

And don't get the young started on the driving -- drifting off the road, lefts on red, interminable right turns. "Oh, my God, they're sooooo slow," said Michelle Czelusniak, 20.

"General rule," said bartender Joe Varco, 29: "Heads up for white hair and big Cadillacs."

The Lakeland area, from Lakeland proper to Winter Haven 15 miles away, population about half a million -- is a demographic dead ringer for the United States of 2025, according to research by Wake Forest University economists. While other economists strain to project current economic trends into the baby boomers' retirement years, the Wake Forest team devised a novel approach: Find the future today.

What they found was Lakeland, with its Wi-Fi Internet connections and well-tended downtown, and an economy that diverges from the national average in interesting ways. Sure, sales of furniture, garden equipment and cars are booming here as they are in many other places. But grocery stores, restaurants and bars, clothing stores and department stores are pulling in far less of the consumers' dollars than in cities with more representative age demographics.

Health care and golf are in; fast food and musical instruments are out. And forget about doughnuts.

"It is unlikely that the future will look much different than Lakeland," said Sherry L. Jarrell, Garst Reese and Gary L. Shoesmith of Wake Forest's Babcock Graduate School of Management.

By 2025, boomers born in 1955 will be 70. Just less than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be younger than 15, slightly less than today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the middle of the age spectrum will hollow out, while the number of those 65 and older will swell from 12.4 percent of the population to 18.2 percent.

The 65-and-over set in Lakeland closely resembles the projected United States of 2025. At 22.6 percent, its 45-to-64 population comes close to the 2025 projection of 23.5 percent. There are 42 residents who are 65 or older for every 100 workers. The nation in 2025 is projected to have 43 Social Security beneficiaries for every 100 workers.

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