Yet as 65-plus populations grow, it seems likely they’ll be listened to more carefully by political leaders. Last year, for instance, Prince William trimmed its budget by canceling bus service to its two senior centers. Angry patrons complained to the board of supervisors about isolation. In politically conservative Prince William, you might have expected such a demand for services to fall on deaf ears. But the board reversed course.
“We don’t have a lot in the way of transit inside the community,” says Corey Stewart, a Republican who chairs the board. “That’s something we’re struggling with. We restored the bus service, but it’s not enough, and we’ll have to beef that up.”
It is also possible to find hope in the strength of the ties binding older residents to their communities. Schools in small towns, central cities and suburbs often rely on older volunteers. So do churches and synagogues, social-service organizations, free health clinics, and the like. Wherever they live, says Kotkin, people age 50-plus “are a critical part of the civic community.”
In particular, he argues, they help to anchor what he calls “the new localism.” Its basic premise, he wrote, is that “the longer people stay in their homes and communities, the more they identify with those places, and the greater their commitment to helping local businesses and institutions thrive, even in a downturn.”
In other words, age 50-plus Americans want to be attached to the places they live and the people they live near. Inevitably, Kotkin says, older people, regardless of why they live in a particular place, will embrace this new “localism” to improve the places they live.
Indeed, at the Manassas senior center, the determination of many older residents to contribute to Prince William itself is unmistakable. Sixty-four-year-old Marianne Nigreville, for instance, volunteers at the front desk, teaches first-grade Sunday school and works as an assistant in two different public schools. Carol Vencill, 66, teaches dance and helps run an energetic tap-dancing troupe made up of women who, a few years ago, couldn’t imagine performing in public. John Rodriguez, 66, a former Marine drill instructor, teaches tai chi to people looking for more contemplative exercise.
These impulses to do good, crucial wherever Americans are aging, will be especially noticeable in suburban communities like Prince William. “Brand-new suburbs with only chain stores, and only people between ages X and X who are earning X dollars a year, they’re harsher places,” Kotkin says. “But what happens as those people age or their parents move into the neighborhood? It becomes a real place.”
Not only will those older residents be natural constituents for creating a town center or making the community less car-dependent, Kotkin argues, but following their own instincts, they will knit these places together.
“They’ll be the foot soldiers and in some senses the generals of your civic institutions,” he says. “The seniors will civilize the suburbs.”
Rob Gurwitt lives in Norwich, Vt.