Segregation by age hurts community

A different kind of discrimination is spreading in the U.S. Despite the rhetoric about family values, an increasing number of Americans are choosing to live in age-segregated “leisurevilles,” where at least one household member must be 55 or older. No one under 18 may live there – ever.

According to industry estimates, more than 12 million Americans in the next decade or so will live in communities that forbid young families. This represents a drastic overhaul in our societal living arrangements.

Age-segregated communities were created half a century ago in the Arizona desert by developers looking for a marketing niche. The first was Youngtown, built by Ben Schleifer, an idealistic Russian Jewish immigrant who wanted to construct a kibbutz-like community where older citizens could age affordably and gracefully. Del Webb drew from his experience with planned communities – the Japanese detention camps he built during World War II – and built the larger and fancier Sun City next door. Experts on aging assumed seniors would resist moving away from their families and that those who did so would wither from loneliness.

Seniors-only a popular concept

The experts were wrong, and the two developments were very successful. Now age segregation has never been more popular. And by 2015, those age 50 and older will represent 45 percent of the U.S. population.

“Active adult” communities (most residents are in their 50s and 60s) are the housing industry's sweet spot. Hundreds of communities are breaking ground each year, often in the North. But many are large Sunbelt leisure plantations, such as the Villages in Florida, which is nearly twice the size of Manhattan and will have a peak population of 110,000.

The Villages has two manufactured downtowns, with faux historical markers and more than three dozen golf courses. Residents tool around on 100 miles of golf trails, often in carts pimped out to look like Hummers and Corvettes. There are continuing education courses, but many of the seniors prefer golfing and nights of line dancing to baby boomer classics like Fleetwood Mac's “Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).”

Like many of us, older Americans are thirsting for community, and these developments seemingly provide it. Suburban sprawl is not only alienating, its car dependency makes aging-in-place there near impossible, and with Americans moving, on average, 12 times during their lifetimes, few can return “home” – everyone's gone. Add to this our fiercely youth-centric culture, the deteriorating civility of youth and the wide disparity among local tax rates, and you have a recipe for secession.

17 school bonds defeated

But secession comes at a steep price for society. Age segregation reinforces negative stereotypes, leads to a willful forgetting of commonalities and encourages our less charitable instincts.

In Youngtown, for example, a couple was fined $100 a day for sheltering their grandson from a physically abusive stepfather. And in Sun City, residents defeated 17 school bond measures in 12 years (before de-annexing from the school district) because they had little interest in educating another generation of children. Meanwhile, students in the neighboring communities were forced to go to school in staggered shifts. Even Schleifer was embarrassed by the consequences of his idealistic contribution. “Our first obligation when I was a boy was to give young people an education, no matter what sacrifices it took,” he said of the bond failures.

Isn't it time we ask ourselves as a nation if we really want to be encouraging communities where birth certificates are scrutinized at points of entry, and where young visitors are reduced to human contraband?

Re-engaging with the younger generations – rather than gating them out of our lives – could result in a far happier outcome for all of us.