By Ted C. Fishman

For the past three years, I have been traveling in Asia, Europe and the U.S. to get a glimpse at a world population that is growing ever older. Before long, throughout the developed world, there will be more people over age 50 than there are under 15. This has never happened before.Older people, more than any other group, have borne the brunt of an increasingly mobile world where jobs and money move ever more speedily around a globe. Older workers don’t move or find new opportunities as swiftly as companies and capital do. Yet, one of the most hopeful and surprising trends in our rapidly aging world is the reassertion by communities of the qualities that make them uniquely attractive and less vulnerable to the tides that gut them of young people and leave older people to endure economic decline.

In my travels, two American communities — industrial Rockford, Ill., and Sunbelt Sarasota, Fla. — offered contrasting views today of how a growing sense of place might figure in our older future to come.

As in other challenged industrial cities, Rockford’s leaders face a local economy that often communicates to people in their 50s and older that they are past their use-by dates. Blame global competition. It moves many jobs abroad and spurs automation, which also destroys jobs for industrial workers. Nearly everywhere I go in Rockford, I meet former factory workers who feel they were urged to take early retirement or otherwise pressured out of their jobs too early. The local big box stores, and other employers that see the value of seasoned workers, suit them up for jobs. Few pay nearly the salaries the workers earned in their former gigs.

Young move away

One of the biggest complaints in town is that Rockford’s best-educated young people leave for the big urban metropolises, or go to select smaller places that are considered cool. Rockford is not cool. But it is trying.

The city’s mayor was elected as a political novice at age 35 on a promise to make the city look and feel young again. His plan mirrors the ambitions of aging industrial cities across America. The schemes challenge the notion that economic fortune depends on how well a person, firm or place serves a wired, flat world. Instead, it argues for the creation of exhilarating places that have their own unique, attractive character that cannot be replicated in China or Brazil or wherever jobs might migrate to. A prime goal is to attract the young professionals and creative types who possess the generative juice to kick-start new economic activity. Cafes, river walks, cultural events and incentives for inventive businesses to fill in the decimated downtown are all part of Rockford’s plan.

 Ironically, one of Rockford’s great recent victories is the luring of a giant Chinese solar panel manufacturer to town. It didn’t want Rockford’s wooded paths or cafes. It wanted its Midwestern workers.

What’s more, the niche that is best attracting new young professionals and creating jobs is the health care sector. It did not need local officialdom to help it grow. The needs of the growing numbers of elderly in the region took care of that. The hospitals are now the second largest employer in town. Older Rockford might not be the enemy of its rejuvenation; it might be the engine.

Cool and old?

Can a place get cool by getting old? That’s the idea in Sarasota, where one household in two is home to someone over 65. While the zeitgeist in Rockford makes people in their 50s feel old, in Sarasota someone 50, or 60, is a kid. Sarasota is flush with new not-for-profit organizations because retirees there crave new projects and start charities. The local Ringling cultural complex, which includes a circus museum, busies 700 older volunteers.

There is so much going on in Sarasota to promote, and profit from, keeping older people engaged, active and healthy that one local civic organization touts the region as a kind of Silicon Valley for aging. It sounds paradoxical, but Sarasota’s critical mass of firms serving the older market produce a steady stream of innovation — in business models, services and technology — all with the needs and desires of late-life consumers in mind. Firms that pioneer innovative senior housing in Sarasota, for example, replicate it elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, one particularly competitive field is health care, the kind older people need and the kind they don’t, but spend for nonetheless. Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Health Care System is the second largest hospital in Florida. Some 1,300 doctors work in the area, a disproportionately high number for a population of 50,000. Highway 41 running past the main hospital is the kind of loosely zoned strip that other cities fill with car dealerships, but in Sarasota it’s a stretch of pharmacies, clinics and quasi-medical white-coat practices, most with big billboards.

Health care is certainly a potent force in bringing outside money, what economists call “export” revenue, to town. It comes mainly in the form of federal Medicare funds. Specialties that rely on customers who pay their own way also flourish.

Looking for a chiropractor, for prolotherapy or for a mesotherapy weight loss center? Highway 41 is the place. None of those businesses is relocating to cool or low-cost foreign climes. For them, Sarasota’s aging population has made it the best place to be. Even as Florida retirement communities go boom and bust, for Sarasota, being the community that best serves its older population gives it a vitality and stability other communities might well envy. And learn from.

Ted C. Fishman is the author of the new book Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation. He also is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.