**UPDATE**: You can listen the podcast featuring the author here.
There are some books, like George Orwell’s 1984, that give you a bizarre peek at an imaginary future while at the same time sending shudders down your spine as you realize that the eerie future described is actually here.
Andrew Blechman’s book Leisureville is a must read for anyone interested in more than a peek at what our future may hold if we continue to nurture some popular perceptions around youth, aging and the way we live in community with one another.
Leisureville is a deceptively leisurely trip through some of America’s largest and fastest selling new urban or master planned communities built specifically for the 50+ resident.
Who hasn’t grumbled even a little bit as a teenager blurts out the F___ word at a theater. Or what about that 14 year old boy in front of you at the mall whose pants are practically at his ankles? Sure we grumble but once your own kids are grown would you want to live in one of those adult only communities where kids are actually banned from living there? Would you really want to live hundreds of miles away from your son(s) or daughter(s), grandchildren and friends you’ve spent most of your life with just so that you could have a few “amenities” and avoid seeing other people’s kids?
I actually thought Blechman was taking us through a fictional community when he described lamp posts that piped out music from the 1950’s and community rules that forbid residents from having children in their homes for more than 30 days during the year. It’s like reading a chapter out of the Stepford Wives (well the Stepford Wives’ parents).
The shocker is that Blechman’s story is true. These are real communities. Blechman actually spends a number of weeks in what he terms “retirement utopias” in Florida and Phoenix. He estimates that there are as many as 1500 of these retirement communities in the U.S. with some under construction, others in the planning stages and many already housing tens of thousands of residents–some as young as 40+.
If you’re curious to see what these communities look like visit this website. Imagine the great “U.S. melting- pot society” looking to a dark corner of its past to embrace a new type of segregation–one now based on age. The worse scenario for me? Imagine our kids not benefiting from the wise insights and life experiences that our older relatives/friends have to offer. I know for me personally, living 10-minutes from my parents has been about the single most positive influence on the development of my children.
Is this retirement utopia a distortion of the new urbanism dream? Remember NU is a movement designed to make our communities more people friendly, safer and sustainable by creating communities for people of different income and age brackets. It is that diversity that has served to build strong, creative and sustainable communities across the country. These retirement communities seem to be the antithesis of new urbanism.
In Leisureville, Blechman throws a spotlight on the kinds of myopic perspectives some people adopt after spending too much time in their own, segregated community. What I found most upsetting was the response some seniors seemed to share around the notion of shouldering responsibility for the funding of our public schools.
Apparently many senior communities have actually voted down referendum after referendum calling for increased taxes to help out needy local schools. The arguments of the adults in these strong voting blocks is that their kids are out of school, they themselves are on limited incomes and they’d sooner have the families with kids currently in schools assume the burden of funding.
Where would we be today if our forefathers (and mothers) had thought that way? As Blechman poignantly points out our society has enjoyed an unwritten social contract where one generation buys into paying for the services that will ultimately be enjoyed by the generations to come. That contract has allowed residents in this country to enjoy a sense of security and lifestyle rarely seen elsewhere in this world.
What will happen when there are thousands of these segregated communities across America, housing millions of aging secessionists? What happens to the rest of us–those left behind who don’t qualify in terms of age or finances? For that matter, what happens to American society in general, and our municipalities in particular, when a critical mass of mature Americans form self-contained private cities and disengage from the general population? Experience shows that these privately owned quasi-governmental entities often resent paying local taxes for schools as well as for municipal services that they prefer to perform themselves. And they are potent voting blocs that can swing elections addressing these issues.”
Perhaps the generation leading this movement to retirement utopia – the 78 million members of the Baby Boomer Generation – need to reassess the impact of the kinds of decisions many are making about community life.
Perhaps we also need to think about our approaches to community life. If our seniors don’t feel welcome they’ll leave, and we will miss their guidance, experience and patience. Those who need their guidance and patience most – our toddlers, our teens and especially the parents raising them – really can’t afford to have that kind of absence of leadership and support in the community.
Blechman reminds the rest of us who truly enjoy our communities and the quirks and joys of living with people of different ages, backgrounds and cultures to acknowledge what we have and to take steps to ensure that our communities are accessible, nurturing and safe for residents of ALL ages and with different needs. That’s an outcome that takes participation and engagement. Are you up for it?