Aging South Carolina Population Creates Opportunities, Challenges

Richard Breen

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

The average South Carolinian is getting older, which creates opportunities and challenges for the state’s economy.

According to recently released estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in every South Carolina county rose between 2010-17. Statewide, the median age rose from 37.9 at the time of the 2010 census to 39.4 as of July 1, 2017.

“Those statistics aren’t surprising, although it’s unusual that it occurred in every county,” said Dr. Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina. “South Carolina is an attractive destination for retirees and has been for quite some time.”

Nationally, the median age rose to 38.0 years in 2017, up from 37.2 in 2010.

In South Carolina, a mix of rural and coastal counties were the ones aging most quickly. The fastest was Jasper, which went from a median age of 34.6 to 41.1 between 2010-17. Others near the coast included Horry (older by 4.8 years), Beaufort (4.7) and Georgetown (4.1).

South Carolina’s low cost of living and attractive coastal communities are among the reasons it’s a popular retirement destination, according to Von Nessen.

“We also have a very strong military presence,” he said. “We see a number of military officers retiring in South Carolina and staying here afterwards.”

Access and cost of healthcare also attracts retirees, according to Jeff McKay, executive director of the North Eastern Strategic Alliance, a nine-county economic development organization that includes Horry and Georgetown.

Healthcare is also a job creator. It’s a target industry for Horry County and Conway Hospital, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center and McLeod Loris Seacoast are all among the county’s top 10 employers. In Florence, another alliance county, McLeod Health, Carolinas Hospital System and Nightingales Nursing & Attendant Care Services are top employers.

“Health care in both of those communities is booming,” McKay said of Florence and Horry. “And those are not only good jobs, it’s a substantial number of jobs.”

Beaufort County is attracting more than just retirees, according to John O’Toole, its economic development director.

“If you go to Bluffton, which is one of the quicker-growing communities in South Carolina, Bluffton’s median age is 34.7,” he said.

Rural counties getting older the fastest included McCormick (5.0 years older), Bamberg (4.2) and Fairfield (4.1). While coastal counties gained population during 2010-17, fast-aging rural counties shrank.

“The dynamics are pretty different on those two ends of the spectrum,” said Dr. Caroline Hartnett, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina. A trend of young people leaving rural areas is happening all over the U.S., she added. “And they’re not just taking themselves away, they’re taking their current and future children away.”

A rising median age could be indicative of the worker shortage in the state.

“Retirees help a lot of industries and we want them to come here,” Von Nessen said. “They certainly stimulate the housing industry and they’re generally spending their wages locally on a variety of industries.

“But they’re not coming to enter the labor force.”

With two large population groups (baby boomers and millennials) getting older and birth rates decreasing, the Census Bureau said the change in the U.S. median age was consistent with projections. A booming state economy and low unemployment puts a priority on educating and retaining young South Carolinians, as well as attracting more young workers from outside the state, according to Von Nessen.

Between a naval hospital, a Marine air station and a Marine training facility, O’Toole said Beaufort County receives 800-1,200 exiting service members each year, many with years to go before retirement. He said more than 900 former service members and their dependents are attending local colleges and can help restock the labor pool.

“We believe our ace in the hole is the military bases in the county,” O’Toole said.