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Tennessee’s Growing Retirement-Age Population Outshines Increases Among Prime-Age Workers

Growth of the state’s 25- to 54-year-old population has been strong this decade so far, but most eyes remain fixed on the state’s growing group of seniors.

Two years into the decade, the growth rate of the state’s prime working-age population has matched the state’s overall increase at 1.8 percent. Tennessee has added 48,000 people between the ages of 25 to 54 since July 2020 (Figure 1).

This group of prime-age workers is important because it supplies a significant portion of the state’s labor force and is generally the most productive phase of a worker’s career.

However, over the same period, the state’s retirement-age population grew almost three times faster. The over-65 population added nearly 60,000 people to its ranks.

These were the two fastest-growing age groups, according to new population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau in June.

Bar chart showing net population change by age group in Tennessee from 2020 to 2022

Figure 1: Tennessee has added 125,720 people over the past two years with 85.7 percent (107,803) coming from the prime-working (25 to 54) and retirement-age (65+) groups.

On a percentage basis, the state’s second-fastest growing cohort was young adults (aged 20 to 24), which has grown by 4 percent since 2020 and representing an addition of over 18,500 people.

The youth population (aged 0 to 19) grew by a modest 237 people while the 55- to 64-year-old age group contracted slightly.


A Pickup in Prime Working-Age Population and Labor Force Participation

One noteworthy change has been the recent growth of Tennessee’s prime working-age population.

Not only has the 25- to 54-year-old age group managed to keep pace with the state’s overall increase of 1.8 percent so far this decade, but more population has been added to the prime working-age group in the past two years than were added between 2010 and 2020.

The jump is primarily driven by net migration gains – more prime-age population moving into the state than leaving. An analysis of data on interstate movers in 2021 showed that nearly 87 percent of them were younger than age 65 and the largest share (42.3 percent) were prime working age (Figure 2).

The state saw similar levels throughout the past decade.

Bar chart showing percentage share of net migrants by age group in Tennessee in 2021.

Figure 2: 42.3 percent of the state’s population gained through net migration was in the prime working-age group. Tennessee’s in-migrants this decade skew younger than the state’s overall makeup.

The uptick represents a significant turnaround from the past two decades, which saw Tennessee’s prime working-age group grow significantly slower than the state as a whole. For example, the state’s population grew by 8.9 percent between 2010 and 2020 while the population ages 25 to 54 increased by only 1.7 percent (Figure 3).

Currently, 38.9 percent of the state’s population is in the prime working-age group, up slightly from 38.3 percent in 2020. However, these levels are still below the 41 percent share from 2010 and 44 percent from 2000.


Figure 3: Tennessee Observed and Projected Prime Working-Age (25 to 54) Population

2000

2,505,344

People Age 25 to 54

Share of state population

44.0%

Change since 1990

+425,825 (20.0%)

2010

2,604,563

People Age 25 to 54

Share of state population

41.0%

Change since 2000

+99,219 (4.0%)

2020

2,649,354

People Age 25 to 54

Share of state population

38.3%

Change since 2010

+44,791 (1.7%)

2030 (Projected)

2,768,941

People Age 25 to 54

Share of state population

37.3%

Change since 2020

+88,354 (3.3%)

A declining share of population in the prime working-age group was demographically inevitable. Births fell in the second half of the 1960s as the baby boom receded. This was followed by a so-called “baby bust” in the 1970s that pushed births even lower due to back-to-back recessions, record inflation and shifting social norms.

Recently, a boost in the rate of labor force participation among the prime working-age population has helped bolster the state’s population gains. Since June 2023, the U.S. rate among those aged 25 to 54 hovered at 83.5 percent following a strong post-pandemic recovery. Levels this high have not been seen since May 2002.

This stands in sharp contrast with the U.S. labor force participation rate for all individuals 16 years and older, which sat at 62.8 percent in August of 2023 and has yet to recover to its pre-pandemic level of 63.3 percent.


Growing Senior Population – Aging Population and Retirement Relocations

Tennessee’s older population continues to draw much of the attention.

This is the second consecutive decade where seniors have seen the largest rate of population growth in the state. Between 2010 and 2020, the 65+ population added 326,000 people in Tennessee. That represented nearly 58 percent of the 564,000 people added to Tennessee over the decade.

The growth rate of seniors turned sharply upward in 2011 when the first “Baby Boomers” turned 65. Since then, the front-end of an 18-year wave of elevated births that occurred in 1946 has replaced a population cohort born in 1945 that was less than two-thirds of the size (Figure 4).

Column chart showing population by single year age groups in Tennessee in 2022

Figure 4: The first Baby Boomers turned 75 in 2022. The number of people that were 75 years old grew 41 percent over the prior year. A similar aging event has occurred since 2011 and has since been pushing the state’s senior population steadily upward.

For example, in 2021, there were 46,300 people aged 75 who were born in 1945. Then in 2022, the first Baby Boomers born in 1946, turned 75. The increase was astounding; in just one year, the age 75 cohort added 18,900 people and grew to 65,150. That was more than three times larger than any other year-over-year increase in the state.

By 2029, the last of the Baby Boomers will enter retirement age.

The state also attracts new retirees. The oft-cited facts that Tennessee does not collect individual income tax and offers relative affordability are undoubtedly among the factors considered by both working- and retirement-age households.

As a group, older Americans are less likely to relocate to another state during retirement years. Just 1.3 percent of U.S. seniors moved to a different state in 2021, compared to 2.4 percent of the population as a whole.

But Tennessee has seen a steady upward trend in the share of its senior population that moved from a different state one year ago. In 2021, 1.8 percent of the state’s seniors had moved into Tennessee from another state—up from 1.5 percent in 2019 (Figure 5).

Line chart showing interstate geographical mobility trend for people age 65 and over

Figure 5: The share of Tennessee’s 65+ population that resided in a different state one year ago has been elevated over U.S. levels for more than a decade and has trended upward since 2014.

It’s clear that Tennessee’s desirability as a retirement destination is increasing. However, in the short term, the primary source of population gains for seniors will continue to be Baby Boomers aging into the 65+ age group.