According to recent estimates, Covid forced up to three million Americans to retire earlier than planned. This development pushed the percentage of people aged 55 and over who are retired to 50%, which is 2% higher than it was before the pandemic.
All things being equal, this means we’d expect to see a spike in the number of people who moved for retirement. But that didn’t happen. Quite to the contrary, the number of retirees who moved in 2021 dropped to 226,000—roughly 43% fewer than in the year before. (See Figure 1). It’s also the lowest number of American retirees in the last five years!
Why Were Fewer Retirees Moving?
The trend for retirees this year is clear. But what are the causes? There could be a few plausible reasons for this discrepancy.
1. Covid: It may seem like the pandemic is coming to an end, but it’s worth remembering that older Americans were the cohort hardest hit by the virus, with rates of infection, hospitalization and death the highest for folks over 65. It’s therefore conceivable that many would-be retirees had Covid, had to care for someone who had it or were otherwise affected by it. This may have undermined their willingness and ability to relocate.
2. The housing market: After a turbulent 2020, to say that the housing market rebounded this year would be a huge understatement. Prices continue to climb at a record pace, especially in the desirable quiet, quaint, low-on-crime, high-on-sunshine neighborhoods retirees tend to seek out. Meaning, despite the fact that most retirees downsize, they may be getting priced out of places where they’d like to retire.
3. The lack of retirement savings: Many Americans lacked retirement savings, which they had to spend to sustain themselves or to support their families even before the pandemic. This situation has arguably gotten worse in recent years, with one recent study finding that 14 million Americans stopped contributing to their pension plans.
Most Stayed Put, But Those Who Went, Went Far
Despite the dwindling numbers of retiring Americans deciding to relocate, those who did make the decision tended to travel a lot further than a typical person moving in 2021.
Americans moving for retirement were three times as likely to leave their state than those moving for work, family or any other reason (47% of those moved for retirement compared with 16% for those other reasons). (See Figure 2.)
This also reflects a 10% increase on last year’s figures, where only 38% of people relocating for retirement decided to move out of their home state.
Tennessee Ranked First For Retirement Moves
Last year it was Virginia, this year it’s Tennessee; the Volunteer State was chosen by 13% of Americans moving out of state for retirement, the highest percentage of all U.S. states. (See Figure 3.)
Tennessee is not only home to vibrant Nashville and Memphis, but it’s also the state with the lowest tax burden in the country, after Alaska. It’s also rated well on affordability.
Meanwhile, Florida, a staple in any list of top retirement destinations, wasn’t that far off the top spot—11% of retirees who left their home state relocated to the Sunshine State in 2021. Rounding out the top five were Pennsylvania (chosen by 10% of Americans), North Carolina (chosen by 10%) and South Carolina (chosen by 9.4%).
Curiously enough, Tennessee was even more popular among early retirees. As many as one in five Americans under 65 who left their state for retirement moved there.
Pittsburgh Topped The List Of Retirement Destination Cities
Usually it’s areas outside of cities and metropolitan areas that are the most preferred destinations for retirees, as 26% of Americans who moved for retirement headed to smaller towns and cities far from urban areas.
Still, the city attracting the highest percentage of retirees is in Pennsylvania, and it’s Pittsburgh. (See Figure 4.) Once ranked as the best place to retire by Bankrate for its low cost of living, excellent healthcare system and a significant number of inhabitants age 65 or older, Pittsburgh was the top city destination of choice for 7% of all retirees in the U.S. in 2021.
Three metropolitan areas from Tennessee also made the top 10. Kingsport-Bristol, a metropolitan area in Tennessee and Virginia, was the destination of choice for 3.9% of Americans relocating for retirement. A further 3.5% chose the Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro area, while 3% opted for Johnson City, Tenn.
Two Florida metros featured in the top 10 with Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla., and Fort Myers-Cape Coral, Fla., representing the Sunshine State with roughly 3.5% of retirees moving to these metropolitan areas.
It’s worth noting that two of the most popular metropolitan areas for people relocating in retirement were around Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Departed Delaware And Maryland
On the flip side were the states that saw the highest percentage of people choosing to leave when they retired. Twenty-two percent were most likely to leave in both Delaware and Maryland, which made the top of this list. In Utah, which was top of the ranking last year, 19% said they would be retirement defectors. (See Figure 5.)
Following them, a number of states, including Virginia and New Jersey, had 15% of their retirement movers headed outside the state.
So in the year immediately following the pandemic, which cohorts of senior citizens were the most and least likely to relocate for retirement?
The majority of senior citizens relocating for retirement were men (53% compared with only 47% of women). Married couples accounted for 77% of retirement moves, while only 23% of movers were single (that includes those divorced and widowed and those never married).
An overwhelming majority of Americans moving for retirement in 2021 were white (88%); only 12% of those retiring and relocating were people of color.
Volodymyr Kupriyanov is a data journalist based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Sources and Methodology: Unless otherwise stated, all the data in this study was taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and its Annual Social and Economic Supplements for 2021. To calculate the most moved-in and most moved-out states and cities, we took the percentage of all retirees in 2021 who moved or left a state or city. “Early retirees” was operationalized as any retiree younger than 65.