Atlanta: Old is the new hot

By Tom Baxter

I have a neighbor who says she can tell where the old people live on our street: they’re the ones still living in the single-story, ‘20s-style Craftsman bungalows, which are steadily giving ground to tear-down/build-ups occupied by younger, growing families.

A lot of Atlantans will know what she means. In the intown neighborhoods where you see a lot more children walking to school in the morning than you did a decade or so ago, this seems very much a city growing younger, demographically.

Looks can be deceiving. According to a recent survey in Forbes, Atlanta is the fastest-aging of the nation’s 53 largest metropolitan statistical areas.

There’s an important distinction to be made between “aged” and “aging.” The oldest cities in the country still are the retirement havens of the Sun Belt and the aging cities of the Rust Belt: Tampa/St. Petersburg and Pittsburgh are the top two cities in this category.

The cities that are catching up fast are those where younger people have flocked over the past few decades, and that’s where Atlanta ends up on top of the heap. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of people aged 65 and older increased by a sizzling 20.3 percent in Metro Atlanta, compared to the national average of 11.3 percent.

We’re not alone in facing the collective realization that we’re getting along in years. Rounding out the top 10 in the Forbes survey are many of the young and upcoming cities we’ve compared ourselves with: Raleigh, Las Vegas, Portland, Jacksonville, Denver, Austin, Phoenix, Sacramento and Tucson.

It turns out that intown neighborhoods are the wrong place to look for this collective graying. For the most part, the people who followed job opportunities and moved into the growing suburbs around all these cities over the past several decades have stayed in the places where they’ve lived and raised families, with relatively few showing much inclination to move closer to city centers.

This has a lot of policy implications, but for Metro Atlanta one stands out in particular. If we know we have a rapidly aging population widely dispersed across the metro area, then the pressure on our existing transportation system is going to increase, as will the rising demand for a lot more transportation alternatives.

Transportation also happens to be one of the factors often cited as most important in attracting younger people to the area. How closely young and old can recognize their common interests and coordinating their respective needs could turn out to be one of the crucial measures of how Metro Atlanta fares in a generally grayer future.

Atlanta’s aging population is serviced by a diverse network of organizations which has already felt the strain of expanding populations and governmental budget cuts. Income disparity, so much an issue in the presidential campaign and so much a reality in Metro Atlanta, grows sharper with age. (If you’re concerned about these issues, you might want to check out the Thanks Mom and Dad Fund, which supports programs and services for senior Georgians.)

In another recent Forbes survey, Atlanta topped the list of the 12 best cities for singles, so it must still be doing something right in terms of drawing younger residents to the area (although some of those singles, it has to be admitted, are beginning to look a little long in the tooth). But there’s little doubt that, like a few gray hairs in the mirror, the news that that the area is fast growing older will provoke a lot of handwringing about whether we’re doing enough to maintain a youthful image.

From a traditional Atlanta point of view, the key thing would be to pull down the drapery, Scarlett-style, and make the best of the situation. In other words, find some way to make “fastest-aging metro area in America” sound hot. This after all is a national phenomenon, and the little town that gave the world Spanx and “Atlanta Plastic” can surely be out in front of it.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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