Sun havens Florida and California are still the most popular states for U.S. retirees, but both lost ground in the lucrative market during the 1980s, according to a study.
Meanwhile, North Carolina has become a rising star as a retirement spot, and Virginia and Georgia climbed into the Top 10 for the first time in 1990, reports Charles F. Longino, a professor at Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Most Americans stay put when they retire, Longino found, with 84% of people age 55 and over saying they want to remain in their current homes.
But those who do relocate have become the focus of intense marketing campaigns, creating a "mailbox economy" in retirement communities that receive a monthly infusion of cash from pensions, investments and Social Security.
Becoming a retirement center can be an economic boon for a state, Longino said, and the process tends to feed on itself. Once an area becomes known as a retirement center, services move in and the area becomes even more attractive to retirees--until it becomes too crowded or too old.
"California has really become, in the last decade, more of a sending state than a receiving state," Longino said in an interview. "The net balance has shifted."
"You can speculate endlessly about what causes it," he said. "Probably it partly has to do with immigration, floods, earthquakes and so forth."
Economic problems in a state might also prompt people to sell costly homes there and invest the money in retirement areas where housing is cheaper, Longino said.
Florida is a different story. The drop-off there is more recent and smaller, Longino said.
"I suspect what is going on is that North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Virginia are beginning to form a barrier between the Northeast and Florida," he said.
"That doesn't mean there isn't a real love affair between New York and Florida," he added. "There is, but there are people deciding to settle in a place not quite as tropical."
Florida has been the unchallenged giant in retirement havens for decades, peaking in the 1975-80 period when it attracted 26.3% of retirees who moved, Longino said. But the Sunshine State slipped to 23.8% between 1985 and 1990.
California, which attracted 13.7% of retirees between 1955 and 1960, had fallen to 8.7% by 1975-80 and to just 6.9% in the 1985-90 span, though it ranked second in each period.
Longino said he was struck by the divergent patterns of people retiring and moving out of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
"Chicago just sends them everywhere, like a shotgun," he said. "New York has this love affair with Florida. And in California . . . the major streams are to adjacent states."
Longino's findings are detailed in a new book, "Retirement Migration in America," from Vacation Publications of Houston.
The Census Bureau counts American movers every 10 years, asking about movement in the preceding five years. Thus, statistics on relocations cover the last half of each decade.
Arizona and Texas, the third- and fourth-ranked states in 1990, also slipped slightly from their 1980 totals, though keeping the same positions. Arizona fell from 5.7% to 5.2% of retirees, while Texas slipped from 4.7% to 4.1%.
On the other hand, North Carolina has been rocketing upward from 27th place in 1960 to 17th in 1970, seventh in 1980 and fifth in the 1990 count, attracting 3.4% of movers.
Pennsylvania ranked sixth, with 3%. Longino calls the Keystone State an anomaly, "remarkable in that it has held sixth place for three decades and is the only stable Northern destination for retirees."