When journalist Andrew D. Blechman learned that his neighbors, Dave and Betsy Anderson, were moving from their long-time home in New England to an elaborate retirement community in Florida, he was surprised.
“I had assumed the Andersons were neighborhood lifers,” Blechman writes in his new book, Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias, published this month. “Why would they want to go?”
His question, of course, goes far beyond the Andersons. More than 68,000 people live in The Villages—the retirement community in Sumter County, Fla., that attracted Blechman’s neighbors—and it is only one of many “active adult” retirement communities throughout the nation. Why does anybody move to these age-segregated places?
“Retirement is a relatively new phenomenon,” writes Blechman, 39. “For thousands of years, with a few exceptions, humans simply worked until they couldn’t.”
But America’s growing prosperity in the 20th century parlayed “retirement” into its own life stage. Youngstown, the nation’s first planned retirement community, was built in 1954 just outside Phoenix, Ariz. Its developer, Benjamin Schleifer, dreamed of a place where older adults could age with dignity and community; the city was host to the very first chapter of AARP.
The man who really created the retirement community we know today was Del Webb, a real estate developer who in 1960 founded the community of Sun City, an unincorporated town near Phoenix. A cluster of houses around a shopping center, recreation facility and golf course, Sun City drew 100,000 people in its opening weekend, and Webb’s company has since opened more than 50 other active adult retirement communities.
Larger than any of these is The Villages, with more than 26,000 acres. Thousands of residents move in each year, and if current sales rates continue, it could have 105,000 inhabitants by 2012. It is divided into multiple subcommunities that share two manufactured “downtown” areas, several pools and recreation centers, and 28 golf courses. It has its own newspaper, magazine, TV station and radio station. Residents—who must be at least 55 to purchase a home—travel around the community on golf carts. Visits from children are limited to a total of 30 days per year.
Blechman’s month-long visit to The Villages—along with briefer visits to other retirement communities and conferences—forms the basis for Leisureville. Part investigative journalism, part humor and part social critique, the book explores the attraction of these communities, what it’s really like behind the gated walls (it’s not all golf games and bridge clubs; the retirees Blechman meets—such as itinerant ladies’ man “Mr. Midnight”—can be surprisingly debauched), and what the phenomenon means for America at large.
Blechman is no ideologue. He is quick to point out the perceived faults of age-segregated communities, but he’s not blind to their appeal, either. He spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about his discoveries and perspective. Read our Q&A with Blechman below, or check out an excerpt from Leisureville about his first day in The Villages. Then visit our Sound Off page to share your thoughts on age-segregated retirement communities.
Q. Beginning your adventure, did retirement communities strike you as a bad idea?
A. Not really. I was more shocked that a place like this existed, and I wanted to understand it—what it looked like, who would be attracted to it and why. It concerns me that 12 million Americans—and this is a conservative estimate—will be seceding from society to live in communities where children aren’t allowed. And we’re not talking about elderly people—that’s the important thing to keep in mind. We’re talking about people who are in the prime of their lives—active adults.
Q. What do you think attracts them to places like The Villages?
A. Well, Americans are searching for community, and retirement and growing older can be a scary life stage. We live in a society that has a lot of existence angst, feelings of isolation. And part of the problem is that we’re ignoring our elderly.
Q. You point out that in your hometown, something like one half of one percent of the budget was dedicated to programs for the aging ...
A. Yeah, one half of one percent, exactly. Very little. We’re a fiercely youth-centric society, and we don’t take good care of our elders. We marginalize them.
Q. But in retirement communities, residents can be surrounded by people going through the same things they are.
A. Right. It’s a very pleasant existence. And where else are you going to retire today? The average American moves 12 times in a lifetime, so there is no “home.” Where are you supposed to go? In suburban sprawl, you have to drive and park in a huge parking lot just to get a quart of milk, let alone human contact. So developers have filled this gap. What do we, as retirees, do with ourselves? Their answer is a very pleasant lifestyle, a very pleasant community. But—it comes with a societal price tag.
Q. Which is ...?
A. Segregation. I can’t think of any period in history in which segregation was a good thing. Groups of people who are segregated start forgetting the commonalities they share.
A perfect example would be Sun City. Sun City voted down 17 school bond measures in 12 years. Kids were going to school in staggered shifts, and they were often using trailers that doubled as classrooms. The message the older residents there are sending is “We don’t care about your families; we certainly don’t care about your children. We’ve done our share; we don’t want to pay anymore.” We’re programmed as humans to try to help the next generation do better than our generation, and this is kind of a reversal of that. Basically, you have these people seceding from society.
There’s nothing wrong with age-targeted housing, with naturally occurring retirement communities. That makes a lot of sense. But we’re talking about places where children are forbidden—they’re given visitors’ passes that time out like visas. That doesn’t strike me as societally healthy. You’ve got to wonder what will happen to the kids whose schools weren’t funded when they grow older and inherit 10 trillion dollars in debt, as well as a bankrupt Social Security system and Medicaid and Medicare. How generous are they going to feel? If you don’t want to live with the generations that come after you, what message are you sending to them?
Q. But Sun City isn’t the norm. If some portion of retirees wants to live in these age-segregated communities, whom does it hurt?
A. I don’t know, I think these communities are going to grow by leaps and bounds, and in an eye blink they’re going to seem like the most normal way to live.
Q. You don’t think the popularity of these communities will wane as boomers retire?
A. Not at all. There will be tweaking—you might not have giant Villages or Sun Cities. Communities are going to be smaller because they’ll be located closer to cities and they’ll be closer to family. But they’re still going to be age-segregated. You’re still having people who have made a distinct decision not to live near children.
Q. What was most surprising about The Villages?
A. You mean besides music being pumped out of rocks and lampposts? And downtowns that were designed by entertainment specialists that worked for Universal Studios? I guess it was that the place was basically governed by one man. The developer owns the newspaper, the TV station, the radio stations, magazines—they’re basically propaganda organs. And the residents don’t care. They’re doing government by contract.
Q. Tell me something good about The Villages.
A. Well, one of the funniest things is the Villagers’ obsession with being in the Guinness Book of World Records. They did the largest simultaneous electric slide; they did the world’s largest golf-cart parade; and they just missed having the world’s largest simultaneous kazoo band.
I really enjoyed the people down there. They were a lot of fun. And I can understand why they want to live this way—they’ve found community. A lot of children can breathe a sigh of relief because their parents are there and they know they’re in good hands.
Q. What would you say if your parents moved down there?
A. Well, it’d certainly be nice to be able to visit someone in a warm climate! No, it wouldn’t happen; my parents are more into culture than into golf.
Look, the people in The Villages—they’re good people, and it’s not against the law. But we need to have a debate. This shouldn’t just happen. There’s nothing in the media about it, nothing; all you see is a few real estate puff pieces. All I want to do is raise the debate.