The oldest (and youngest) states and the shrinking number of teenagers with licenses

Kingman, Ariz., along Interstate 40. The Grand Canyon state is a huge draw for the over-65 set. (Visions of America)
10 min

We want to stop dead in our tracks and thank the more than 1,000 readers who sent us quantifiable queries in 2022! You’re a genuinely intimidating bunch. Your questions and column ideas are significantly smarter (and weirder) than any we could have written on our own. We may never answer all of you, but that will not dissuade us from trying.

In that spirit, here’s this month’s data dive!

Where have all the retirees gone?

Reader Meg Crosby of Port Townsend, Wash., a retiree refuge clinging to the steep north coast of the Olympic Peninsula, asked where in the United States she can find the most folks over age 65. This is a super duper fun question, and an excellent reason to dig into the fascinating world of retirees in America.

When we first ran the Census Bureau numbers, the results flummoxed us. Puerto Rico, Maine and Florida host the largest retirement-age populations. What grand unified theory of retirement neatly explains all three? What exactly do they have in common?

In graying Puerto Rico, the elderly face climate disasters alone

Almost nothing, it turns out!

This stunning insight, or lack thereof, struck us when we filtered the older population by birthplace. About 89 percent of Florida’s retirement-age population came from out of state. It’s a classic retirement destination.

Meanwhile, just 6 percent of Puerto Rico’s retirement-age residents were born outside the territory. It’s an extreme example of a common rural phenomenon: Places grow older because younger folks have fled. In Puerto Rico, the local-born population under age 18 fell 47 percent over the past decade, while the 75-plus contingent rose 44 percent.

And what about Maine? While it attracts a growing share of retirees, it also has lost some young folks and remains a solid example of aging in place. The typical Mainer is 44.7 years old. It’s easily the oldest state in the union.

In Florida, meanwhile, every fifth person you meet is likely to be a retiree from out of state — more than double your national odds. But does that mean Florida attracts an outsize number of retirees, or that it’s a top destination for movers of all ages, many of whom end up staying into retirement?

If a place attracts a lot of people who stick around after they hit 65, that looks very different from places that attract mainly older empty nesters looking to live off the fat of the ol’ 401(k). And when we talk about retirement destinations, we reckon we’re talking about the latter.

So, we need more data: The number of out-of-state retirees vs. the number of younger out-of-staters. That tells us which places are importing unusual numbers of retirement-age Americans, as well as which states resemble North Dakota, where out-of-staters appear to flee as soon as they collect their last paycheck.

By this metric, Arizona edges out Florida as the top retirement state. Both are ridiculously attractive to the 401(k) set: About 90 percent of their retirement-age populations were born elsewhere. But in Arizona, a lower share of the younger population comes from out of state, which suggests that more Americans head there expressly to retire. Florida does ever so slightly better at attracting folks of all ages.

When we spin out this new metric more widely, Maine, West Virginia and Puerto Rico tumble down the rankings and California, Alaska and Nevada rise into the top five destinations for American retirees.

You might well ask: Alaska? Is there really a Yukon Gray Rush? Or is some demographic voodoo at work? Send us your speculation!

Who owns the most cars?

Congratulations to all of our readers in their 50s: You’ve peaked. In terms of car ownership, at least.

You have roughly one automobile available for every adult in the household, according to our analysis of Census Bureau data from 2017 to 2021. But you’ll begin to slowly shed cars as you draw nearer age 70, kids leave the house and you retire from the daily commute — and presumably the job that went with it.

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Assuming you’re average, at most ages you’ll have slightly more vehicles if you’re White, and fewer if you’re Black, Asian or Hispanic. That’s in part because White people predominate in states like Wyoming and the Dakotas, where vehicles outnumber adults by a decent margin, workers with high vehicle ownership abound (think farmers and miners), and most communities offer few viable options for walking or public transit.

Car ownership tends to correlate with less-diverse populations, lower immigration and higher White populations (along with higher support for former president Donald Trump). But unlike with other factors, such as the mysterious chain restaurant conundrum, additional analysis shows this is probably just another expression of the urban-rural density divide that underlies so many of the nation’s cultural and political cleavages.

The Census Bureau’s data on car ownership measures only how many cars are available to the entire household, and its count maxes out at six. But we’ve found that fewer than 1 percent of households have six or more vehicles — especially since work-provided vehicles, trucks over 1 ton and derelict rustbuckets up on blocks in the front yard don’t count.

Why did we look at adults (18 plus), instead of anyone over age 16, a common legal driving age? These days, relatively few 16-year-olds can drive, and even 17-year-olds with a driver’s license have become a minority, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 1997, 43 percent of kids had their license by age 16, and 62 percent had it by age 17. By 2020, that had dropped to 25 and 45 percent.

County-level results show an interesting split: Car ownership remains low in historically impoverished areas such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, Puerto Rico, the Rio Grande Valley and many Indian reservations, but it’s also low in some of the nation’s wealthiest urban enclaves.

Which states send the most people abroad?

In a recent column, we looked at the millions of Americans who have left the country. But we didn’t address a clever query from D.C. reader Saliha Dobardzic: From which states do those expatriate Americans hail?

Unfortunately, Saliha, the short answer is an impotent shrug: Nobody tracks either the birthplace or the residence of Americans who emigrate.

But finding answers to questions like this is kind of like looking at a solar eclipse. We may not be able to look at the data directly, but we can see its distinctive shadow by grabbing a metaphorical shoe box and making the data equivalent of a pinhole camera, which allows us to observe otherwise hidden (or blinding) phenomena.

While the Census Bureau doesn’t measure Americans abroad, the bureau’s American Community Survey does reveal a bit about Americans who came home after living abroad the prior year. It’s not representative — the people who return differ from those who stay away forever — but it’s the best we’ve got.

And the state that sends the most Americans abroad is: Utah, of course! Over the past decade, 36 out of every 10,000 people born in the state had returned from abroad in the past year. That’s pretty close to double the national rate of 20 per 10,000. (We don’t count American territories, such as Puerto Rico or American Samoa, as “abroad,” for obvious reasons).

But it doesn’t take much digging to see that these recently repatriated Utahns are probably not your typical American emigrants. They have an astoundingly lopsided demographic profile. A substantial majority are male, most are under age 25 and almost a third are 20 or 21 years old.

As you may know, men in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints are eligible to leave on their missions at age 18, though many wait a year, leaving at 19 and returning at 21. So while the Census Bureau doesn’t have a check box for Mormon, it sure seems safe to assume most of Utah’s returning Americans were abroad as Mormon missionaries. Which may not have been what Saliha was looking for.

When we narrow the data to Americans age 25 or older — cutting out the missionaries and the study-abroad crowd — the Beehive State slips to fifth place and Hawaii jumps to the top. Of course, an unusually high share of Hawaiian-born returnees are service members coming back from far-flung assignments, so Hawaii probably requires its own grain of salt.

When we go a step further and remove active-duty military and veterans from the equation, Utah’s neighbor Colorado jumps to the top, followed by Hawaii, D.C., Utah and Arizona. But the differences among states also shrink pretty dramatically, a strong hint that when you remove some confounding factors, Americans head overseas at broadly similar rates.

Close readers will note that for this exercise we’ve focused on birthplace, rather than current residence. That’s because current residence adds yet another confounding factor: It shows the places that are most attractive to people returning from abroad, not the states where those people come from in the first place.

If we look at the current residence of returnees, there’s a single undisputed champion: The District of Columbia. It draws far more American-born returnees from abroad than any state, and its advantage only grows once you remove military and missionaries.

The best question we can’t answer

Our colleague Julie Zauzmer Weil, creator of our favorite database of 2022, asked about demographic and geographic differences in the nicknames we use for grandparents. Who still uses Meemaw? What about Oma or Bubbe? How has it changed over time? We can’t figure out a way to track this, but we’d love your suggestions!

While you’re at it, the Department of Data wants to know about your plans for retirement. Will you stay, move or even emigrate? If you plan to move, what characteristics will you look for in your new home? Do you hope to end up in one of the over-65 theme parks mushrooming across the Sun Belt, or do you seek a more diverse community? Do you have other retirement-related questions? Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send you an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week, the buttons go to readers Meg and Saliha, whose questions we attempted to answer above, as well as to Julie and her parents, Jan and Bob, who may soon be known as Granny Janny and Pop.