Ever since switching from full time to part time employment I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a good retirement. I’m sometimes surprised by who has something to say about the issue. Jack Dickey, a 24-year-old writing for Time magazine, put together a piece last October about retirement prospects for his generation. He describes retirement lifestyles, in particular the lifestyle that had its inception in 1954 with the opening of the first Sun City development (Wikipedia gives a different opening date: January 1, 1960). Sun City is a restricted age residential community with a golf course and other recreational amenities located in Arizona. Dickey reports that older adults currently have a choice between about 50 retirement communities named after Del Webb, the developer who pioneered the Sun City concept.
Dickey toured one of these communities, Sun City Carolina Lakes, south of Charlotte, NC. After ticking off facts about the community he learned from his tour guide, Dickey suggests that the appeal to older adults is not so much the physical characteristics of Sun City as the cultural environment:
“But the social climate, more than the grounds, is what draws seniors to Sun City. In conversations with so many residents, the phrase like-minded people pops up. In exchange for surrendering lifelong friendships, the kind forged by happy accident in heterogeneous communities, seniors often seek out places where the residents act the same as them and do the same things they do. (Imagine picking a college, if college had no classes and lasted 20 years.) So the people here are mostly retired professionals, mostly friendly, mostly from the East Coast, mostly active, mostly with pensions and grandkids, mostly conservative, nearly all white.”
Dickey thinks that such a development will never appeal to millennials. He predicts his generation will dislike homogenous communities: “I can hardly fathom enjoying a life in which I interact only with people my own age, people largely just like me, with all the same cultural points of reference. Besides, I can get that free on Twitter.”
Wikipedia reports that 98.44% of residents at the original Sun City are white. That doesn’t leave much room for diversity! I fit the Sun City demographic fairly well (OK, I’m not politically conservative, so there’s one difference), but I’ll never live there. I would find a social environment where everyone is like me to be terribly drab, like eating nothing but bland, seasonless food. I want to be around people of different ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups. I have some such range in my life now, especially in regards to age. In the 48 hours before writing this, I conversed with people ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s, with only one within five years of my age. It was great! Rather than giving this up for homogeneity, I hope for even more diversity when I’m fully retired.
Dickey also points out that the life courses of older adults are likely to diverge considerably following retirement:
“In middle age, we’re all more or less the same. Everybody works, and everybody’s unhappy. But when age 65 rolls around, our differences get magnified.
“In retirement, those who had good jobs can play tennis all day and work part-time: consulting, advising, expert-witnessing. But those who did manual labor without the protection of a pension plan will have sore backs and need full schedules, hoping for scraps of service labor to be thrown their way.”
Social Security–the U.S. government retirement system meant to provide a financial safety net for retirees–doesn’t actually deliver the sort of security that its name implies. Though there is less outright poverty among the elderly than there used to be, there are far too many older adults living out their last years in straitened circumstances. Yet much of this near-poverty is hidden from view. I hope that those of us who have resources to shelter us from poverty’s cold breath won’t isolate ourselves from poorer age-mates but will instead make them part of our lives. We have a lot to learn from each other.