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Best New Ideas in Retirement: At this retirement community, the golf course is replaced by a ‘midlife wisdom school’

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It’s been more than 60 years since America’s first large-scale retirement community, Sun City, opened to the “55 and better” set. And, boy, did they open, with a line of cars two miles long on opening day curious to see the six model units and the makeshift golf course just outside of Phoenix.

Del Webb, the creator of Sun City, tapped into an unrecognized, existential need. Ever since the Social Security Act had become law in 1935, which had the noble goal of creating a safety net for older Americans, people 55 and older felt the societal nudge to be put out to pasture. Basically, Webb planted the pasture. And, for the next three decades, the average retirement age in the U.S. dropped from 65 in 1960 to as low as around 60 in the early 1990s, although it has been on the rise ever since. 

“Once communities like Webb’s Sun City and its chief rival, Leisure World, emerged as emblems of retirement, developers, the pension industry and a vast leisure sector followed,” said Marc Freedman, chief executive of Encore.org, a nonprofit that brings people together across generations. “In a relatively brief period, they transformed the ideal of aging into one of an endless vacation.”

But, after a robust period of expansion through 2015, the retirement community industry saw a slight drop in growth and senior housing occupancy rates have trended downward in the past three years. What happened?

Famed development psychologist — and the academic who popularized the concept of the “’identity crisis” — Erik Erikson offers a clue. He suggested the seventh of eight human life stages is based on the juxtaposition of generativity versus stagnation. During the latter era, which mostly lasts past the age of 50, mid-lifers and seniors start focusing more on how to make a positive contribution to others (especially younger generations) or they potentially fall into a state of stagnation and, possibly, despair. 

Erik Erikson’s eight life stages

  • Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust
  • Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
  • Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt
  • Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority
  • Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion
  • Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation
  • Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation
  • Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair

Interestingly, Erikson suggested that people who feel stagnation often feel disconnected or uninvolved in their community. Who would have guessed that retirement, our time of leisure, would actually accelerate our demise by two years, as has been verified by social science research?

Hence, we started to see new models for senior communities opened up, some that are intergenerational like Bridge Meadows in Portland, Ore., and others that are dedicated to connecting older adults to their passions like North Hollywood, Calif.’s NoHo Senior Arts Colony, where hallways are a rotating gallery, studio space is available for residents to mix their own paints and a theater occupies the ground floor. 

Also see: This is how boomers are reinventing retirement living

Europe has pioneered this thinking movement with a program in Deventer, Netherlands that pairs college students who seek affordable housing as roommates with seniors who seek companionship. And The Embassies of Good Living, based in Zurich, Switzerland, plan to offer in 2022 or 2023 a premium, urban co-living experience across the generations as a growing number of seniors say they want to live near an urban location or town center.

‘We-tirement’

While my friends and I have toyed with the idea of “we-tirement” — creating an intentional compound of those I want to grow old with — at age 60, I have no intention of ever living in a conventional retirement community. In fact, the dictionary definition of retirement doesn’t describe my intended future at all: “withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life; to be in seclusion.”

I look forward to a “regenerative” future defined by “being restored to a better, higher or more worthy state; spiritually reborn or converted.” It was this ethos of regenerativity that led me and my two co-founders, Christine Sperber and Jeff Hamaoui, to create the Modern Elder Academy (MEA) three years ago with its beachfront campus in southern Baja California Sur, an hour north of Cabo San Lucas. With nearly 1,000 alums from 24 countries, and an average age of 54, we’ve created a midlife wisdom school dedicated to “long life learning” helping people create a life that is as deep and meaningful as it is long. Currently, we have so few schools or tools to advise people on how they can change their mindset on aging while also cultivating and harvesting their own wisdom in week-long workshops and ongoing alumni follow-up programs.

We noticed that many mid-lifers were trying to navigate multiple transitions at once — career change, divorce, empty nest, parents passing, menopause — without any formal training for how to master even one transition at a time. And, they were often trying to do this all alone. We came to realize that wisdom is not taught, it’s shared — so creating a robust cohort of 20 people in a week-long workshop with ongoing connection of the group post-Baja led to a transformative effect in these MEA alums’ lives.

The number one lesson we’ve learned is the deep desire for people to connect in community, which has only been heightened due to the pandemic. So, our primary vision is to launch a collection of MEA Regenerative Communities with the Santa Fe, N.M., area being our first choice of locations in the U.S. after having created a proof of concept in Baja California Sur in Mexico.

A regenerative community is to the 21st century what a retirement community was to the 20th. Instead of a golf course at its core, these new communities will have a farm based on regenerative agriculture principles that help to restore the soil through crop diversity, composting and other methods that have proven to have a positive impact on climate change. This farm is surrounded by an MEA campus for our midlife wisdom retreats. Finally, we incorporate both sale and long- or short-term rental housing opportunities for those interested in an intergenerational, interconnected community. We’ve learned in Baja that people want to live in a community dedicated to mindfulness, shifting one’s mindset on aging, cultivating wisdom, and giving back.

These principles of regeneration mean that our farms are producing healthy food for our community while also addressing climate change. It is this kind of holistic reciprocity – what’s good for the world is also good for them – that more and more people in their 50s and 60s are seeking. Whether it’s supporting local businesses or mentoring nearby college students, our MEA community feels a deep sense of legacy in how they are approaching the second half of their adult life.

I’m not sure we’ll have a line of cars two miles long when we open our first stateside MEA Regenerative Community in a couple of years, but I do hope that this concept is a catalyst to the senior housing developers who know it’s time for a new, intergenerational business model that moves from conventional to intentional. It’s time for us to grow a neighborhood, not just build one.

Chip Conley is the founder of Modern Elder Academy and Airbnb’s Strategic Advisor for Hospitality & Leadership.

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