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Guest column

The new segregation

There's a different kind of discrimination spreading in the United States. Despite all the popular 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 and enjoy living without children. No one under 18 may live there — ever.

According to conservative 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, a modest affair 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, who drew from his experience with planned communities — the Japanese detention camps he built during World War II — liked the idea and built the much larger and fancier Sun City right next door. Experts on aging assumed that seniors would resist moving away from their families and that those who did so would wither from loneliness and depression.

The experts were wrong, and the two developments were very successful. Now, Youngtown is desegregated and Sun City is getting ratty around the edges. But age segregation has never been more popular. And by 2015, those age 50 and older will represent 45 percent of the U.S. population.

In a dimming housing market, "active adult" communities (most residents are in their 50s and 60s) remain the industry's sweet spot. Hundreds of communities are breaking ground each year, often in the North. But many are large Sun Belt leisure plantations, such as the Villages in Florida, the world's largest retirement community. It is nearly twice the size of Manhattan and will have a peak population of 110,000.

The Villages has two manufactured downtowns owned by one person (a third is on the way) with faux historical markers, more than three dozen golf courses and golden oldies pumped out of lampposts. 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.

Ten years after the introduction of Viagra, retirees are taking full advantage of what a child-free environment provides: lower taxes, untrampled lawns and better sex.

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 our society's younger members and the wide disparity among local tax rates, and you have a recipe for secession.

But although secession may be a pleasant experience for some, it comes at a steep price for society. Age segregation only 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.

Now desegregated, Youngtown has regained its vibrancy, but Sun City is at risk of becoming a necropolis as its generational strife turns inward, with older residents resisting efforts by younger retirees to reinvest in the community. Although Youngtown was forced to desegregate because of faulty bylaws, age discrimination is not only legal, it's protected by the federal Fair Housing Act.

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?

Congress should either raise the entry age for these communities to something actually approaching old or put an end to age segregation altogether. Meanwhile, 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.

Andrew D. Blechman is the author of Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias.

The new segregation 07/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 7:39pm]

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