Baby boomer bulge to weigh on Kansas

Over the past decade, the number of Kansans in the 55 to 65 age group rose by 50 percent, making it the fastest-growing segment of the state’s population, new census figures show.

Today there are more Kansans in their 50s than there are Kansans in their 40s, the figures show. The 50-somethings also outnumber the 30-somethings.

On a chart that maps the state’s age segments, baby boomers show up as a bulge that has been steadily moving to the right — past the 40-year mark during the 1990 census, past the 50-year mark during the 2000 census and past the 60-year mark during the 2010 census.

Before the next census in 2020, the baby boomer bulge will have moved past retirement age. Demographers say that will have an impact on the economy and character of the state.

“You have the baby boomers born from ’55 to ’65 who until now have been working and earning a paycheck and paying a lot of taxes,” said Gary Brinker, director of Fort Hays State University’s Docking Institute of Public Affairs. “When you retire, you’re not paying income and payroll taxes.

“The baby boomers are moving into the age group that draws benefits.”

Laszlo Kulcsar, a sociology professor at Kansas State University, said aging baby boomers eventually are going to draw on state resources.

“I would say that the next five to 10 years are not going to be that challenging,” he said. “But after that, I think there’s going to be a problem.”

Most baby boomers have enough savings to live comfortably immediately after retiring, he said. But that may not be the case when they reach the age of 75 or 80.

“Then they aren’t that healthy anymore,” he said. “And maybe they don’t have those savings and assets.”

The new figures

The new census figures show that the median age in Kansas rose from 35.4 in 2000 to 36.0 in 2010.

The median age now exceeds 50 in five Kansas counties — all of them along the Nebraska border.

In six counties, the median age is under 32. They include three southwest Kansas counties with large immigrant populations and three northeast Kansas counties near state universities.

Nearly one in four Kansans already has passed the age of 65.

Brinker said that for years, rural Kansas counties have been growing older as younger people move away.

“For most of the kids, when they graduate from high school there’s a big pull factor that’s moving them into the cities,” he said.

Gov. Sam Brownback pushed a plan through the Legislature this session that aims to reverse that trend and help replenish activity in rural areas.

Known as Rural Opportunity Zones, the program offers a five-year income tax break for residents moving to one of 50 designated counties from out of state. Brownback is targeting retirees looking to return home, or recent college graduates seeking new business opportunities.

Brownback said the new figures validate the program’s need to attract jobs and “human capital” in rural areas.

“For years, many of our young people have gone to college and chosen not to return home,” he said. “The student loan repayment portion of the Rural Opportunity Zones will provide the right incentives for recent college graduates to find opportunities in rural Kansas.”

Retiring boomers

Although thousands of Kansans will be retiring over the next few years, they probably won’t be leaving the state, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

“Baby boomers clearly have stated that they do not want the retirement of their parents,” he said. “They are highly geared to urban areas with great roads, a great health care system and lot of amenities like public arts.”

The parents of Kansas baby boomers may have been drawn to retirement communities in Florida or Arizona, he said, but the boomers will more likely be drawn to places like Wichita.

Maren Turner, senior state director of AARP Kansas, said a recent survey by her organization of Kansans 50 and older found that spending time with their families was among their top priorities.

“They want to see their children and grandchildren, and not just during the holidays,” she said. “They want to be real family members.”

She said the biggest concerns of those surveyed dealt with the costs of health care.