ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Sometime this year, Florida will surpass New York in population, becoming the nation's third-most populous state, and sun-seeking seniors are not driving the growth.
The milestone is validation of the sometimes messy but increasing influence of the Sunshine State as it approaches being home to 20 million residents at a time that historians may one day say was pivotal in the country's history. Once Florida passes New York, only California and Texas will have more residents.
"Florida is kind of an icon of the 21st century in terms of the shifting population and the growing role Latin America is playing in transforming the country," said James Johnson, a business professor at the University of North Carolina. "I think it's going to be for the 21st century what California or New York was for the 20th century."
Florida encompasses many trends in America: an aging population, a service-oriented economy with many low-wage jobs and an ethnic diversity propelled by Hispanic growth. Like the United States, Florida is a haven for migrants and people making fresh starts, and the state's 29 electoral votes are the nation's most coveted given Florida is the nation's largest swing state. Florida also has myriad problems, some the result of its explosive growth, which must be addressed for the state to keep thriving.
New Floridians, such as 47-year-old Michael Richards, list a number of reasons for moving here: the weather, no state income tax, a familiarity from family vacations or being stationed in the military, the availability of low-skill jobs and proximity to Latin America and Europe.
"You put up with three months of hell (in the summer) for nine months of great weather," said Richards, who moved to the Tampa area in 2011 after retiring from the military so his wife could be a quick plane-ride away from her family in Panama.
Although Florida has the nation's largest share of residents over age 65, seniors are not propelling the recent growth from migration. They account for less than 10 percent of new residents in the last several years. Instead, more than half of the new arrivals are between 25 and 64, according to an AP analysis of data from the U.S. Census' American Community Survey. Almost two-fifths of them were under age 25.
New York isn't shrinking in population; it's just that Florida's growth is outpacing it by a 3-to-1 ratio, and ex-New Yorkers are the biggest domestic source of new Floridians. More than 537,000 residents moved to Florida last year, and around a tenth of them came from New York State. As of last July, the two states were separated by about 98,000 people: New York had 19.6 million residents and Florida had 19.5 million residents, according to Census figures released earlier this week. As of today, that difference likely has been whittled down to about 20,000 people.
Migrants from Latin America dominated the newly arrived Floridians who came from outside the United States. Nondomestic migrants represented a quarter of Florida's new arrivals last year. The largest flow of migrants outside the 50 states was from the Caribbean to South Florida, particularly the Miami area, according to the AP analysis.
Although the opportunities in Florida aren't what they were a decade ago, prospects remain. The top jobs found in disproportionately higher numbers than the rest of the nation are motorboat operators, entertainers, athletes, construction workers and real estate agents.
Florida's mean annual wage of $41,000 is less than California's $52,300, New York's $53,500 or Texas' $44,000, but some new Florida residents see benefits to working in a fluid, low-wage economy.
Adam Mayfield knew he could easily find a job in Orlando after he was laid off in Atlanta last year. He quickly got work at a telemarketing call center, then a job scoring standardized tests and a restaurant deliveryman job followed that. He finally landed in a technical support position at one of the region's big theme parks.
"In the hospitality industry, more specifically the theme park industry ... there is a turnover that is always going on," said Mayfield, 36. "It just always seemed easier to pick up these low-end jobs down here — whether waiting tables or working at Starbucks — because of the turnover."
In the national imagination, Florida has been a tropical paradise, a place of leisure, a destination to escape the dreary winters of the north. Florida's greatness was found in its natural beauty: its fresh springs, its sugar-sand beaches, the vastness of the Everglades, its blue skies, swaying palm trees and endless supply of sunshine.
But Florida has also become a bit of a tarnished Eden, which experts argue traded in the charms of its natural beauty for the addictions of development and growth.
"This is Florida: We're making minimum wage wearing a Pluto costume at Disney World, but we think we've hit the big-time," said Jack Davis, a history professor at the University of Florida.
The state also has largely failed to address some pressing problems that will only grow worse as Florida's population keeps growing.
The state's primary source of water comes from the Florida Aquifer, which is replenished from rainfall seeping into the ground. The more Florida is paved over with driveways, parking lots and structures, the less water seeps into the Aquifer.
The state's economy — largely reliant on tourism and housing — is still reeling in some places from the Great Recession and needs further diversification. There have been pockets of success: Orlando developed a thriving computer simulation industry and is working on building a medical science community. Miami has aspirations to be a Latin American hub of high-tech companies. Palm Beach County has developed life sciences facilities, anchored by cancer and infectious disease research at the Scripps Research Institute, with the help of millions of dollars in subsidies from state and local governments.
Bruce Stephenson, an environmental studies professor at Rollins College outside Orlando, is optimistic that Florida has learned some lessons from the housing boom and bust that will propel its leaders to take a more clear-eyed approach to growth. And to a certain extent, life in Florida is always going to be about the ups and downs — the cycle of construction and destruction that comes from man and Mother Nature alike.
"People come to Florida, say, 'What an amazing life,' buy into the dream and then the dream collapses and yet we go on," said Stephenson. "Because it's such a new state, you can try different things. ... It's a laboratory. Sometimes the experiments blow up."