THE VILLAGES — Through her high school years, Brandy Brown watched as the undulating farmlands surrounding her hometown of Coleman were eaten up by golf courses and khaki-colored homes. When she moved back after college, it seemed like all of her friends were working for the retirement community next door.
Soon, she, too, was employed in The Villages, the adult community in central Florida so large it spans three counties and has its own census designation.
The problem is, it isn’t really next door.
Brown, 38, is a nurse and her husband is a contractor in the community. They drive for roughly an hour to get to work each day, she said.
“In order to live close to your job, you would have to live in The Villages,” said Brown.
Some young people are giving it a try.
The Villages is the world’s biggest retirement community, larger in size than Manhattan and with traffic that thickens each snowbird season.
It was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States over the last decade, according to recently released census data, with about 130,000 total people living in the community. Some of the new residents are under 55.
Labor conditions, relationships with family members and the pandemic have led a small-but-growing number of Millennials and Gen Z-ers to take on life in “America’s Friendliest Hometown” — at times to the chagrin of the older adults who moved there to spend their retirement surrounded by peers.
Younger adults aren’t just coming organically — The Villages owners also are helping to usher them in.
Is it legal?
The Villages has never been completely without younger adults — a fact that’s evident after a peek inside its many recreation centers, clothing stores or movie theaters. An estimated 15,000 employees work in The Villages, most below the age of 55.
A few months ago, Quentin Latimer wrote a post on “The Villages Word of Mouth,” a Facebook group with over 33,000 members.
Latimer, 34, had a question: Could he, as a young person, own or rent a home in The Villages?
The response was swift. Nearly 250 people commented, often with conflicting information. Arguments ensued. Some of the comments, now deleted, turned vitriolic.
With young people came crime, some retirees said. Younger adults responded with ageist statements.
Latimer said he’d wanted to move closer to his jobs at The Villages’ local Potbelly’s and Keke’s Breakfast Cafe.
From home in Webster, it took Latimer about 45 minutes to get to either employer.
“Working in The Villages, I’m making like $13, $14 an hour,” he said. “It’s more than what I’d be making down in Tampa — or anywhere else for that matter.”
It is legal for younger people to live in The Villages. Florida law allows for up to 20 percent of people in an age-restricted retirement community to be under 55. The Villages isn’t close to meeting that cap — 95 percent of its residents over the last five years were older adults, census data shows.
The retirement community is more age diverse, though, than racially diverse — 98 percent of its residents are white.
Latimer abandoned his search after finding out that people under 19 can’t live in The Villages properties — he has four stepkids. He eventually quit his jobs after finding work closer to home.
Chrissy Dunlap moved in as soon as she could. At 19, she and her grandmother migrated to Florida from Pittsburgh. At first, they lived in Orlando. When her grandmother began looking at homes in The Villages, Dunlap was hesitant.
“But then I started looking around and was like, ‘Okay, I can go to the pool every day,’” she said. “‘It’s an older clientele, so I can jump start a new career here.’”
Dunlap, a hairstylist, doesn’t see herself leaving any time soon. She has steady clients, who show up on time and as promised. She likes when an older woman fawns over her tattoos while she’s lounging at the pool — she’s usually the only inked person around — or when a retiree insists on introducing her to his visiting grandchild.
“A lot of Villagers don’t want to travel further than their golf cart will take them, but some of them are very adventurous,” said Dunlap, now 21. “It’s very enlightening seeing how active people are after retirement.”
Friends up north don’t always get it. “When I tell them, ‘Come visit me!’ they’re really taken aback,” Dunlap said. “They’re like, no, let’s go to the beach! But then one came, and she loved taking the golf cart out and adventuring.”
Most of the young people she knows in the community are like her — college students or recent high school graduates living with retired family members. It isn’t always easy to meet people her age, but it’s getting easier.
“The newer section of The Villages is getting into younger and younger generations,” Dunlap said. “A lot of younger people are moving in with their parents. Because The Villages never stops growing — I swear it’s going to get to Orlando somehow.”
The Villages boasts several town squares, where people gather for nightly live music and dancing.
“It’s Disney World for adults here,” said resident Carolyn McLean, 79, while waiting for a show to begin at the Spanish Springs Town Square. “My husband has dementia. But he can still drive a golf cart. Where else can he do that?”
Restaurants and bars ring the areas. By midday, they’re mainly filled with jovial — and occasionally tipsy — older adults.
One afternoon in September, a pair of friends, both 23, were leaving Gator’s Dockside bar. Eyes followed them.
“They act like we’re taking over their territory,” said Jaiden Sparkman, who grew up in Wildwood, home to the southernmost expansion of the retirement community. “They could be drunk as a skunk at noon, but as soon as they see a 23-year-old, oh no! We’re doing something wrong.
“But it’s like, we were here first. They’ve taken over everything.”
Neither she nor her friend Blair Bronson live in The Villages — they’re just outside it — but the community has come of age alongside them, Bronson explained.
“People stare at us the entire time, whenever we’re here,” said Bronson, a Summerfield resident. “I had a man walk up to me and say I don’t belong. When I grew up here! I had my first date at Lake Sumter here.
“If I can get a drink that’s 2 minutes from my home, why would I go somewhere else?”
Margarita Republic, on the other side of the square, is one of the few bars that stays open past 10 p.m. on weekends, according to two employees in their 20s. So naturally, young people who live in and around the retirement community flock there.
“Margarita Republic is literally where I’ve met everybody that I’ve hung out with, or hooked up with, or anything,” said Jamie Broderick, a 28-year-old attorney.
When Broderick’s parents moved to The Villages at the start of the pandemic, she and her 5-year-old daughter joined them.
Broderick, a single mother from Long Island, depends on the support of her parents while working full-time. She loves that her daughter gets to have a relationship with her grandparents — but it can be lonely.
“It’s really hard to make friends,” she said.
She and her daughter eventually moved to an apartment complex that borders The Villages due to the community’s age restrictions.
“I hate the idea of being far away from my parents,” she said. “But do you know how often I’m on FaceTime with my friends in New York or like driving to Orlando to meet friends who moved there?”
Turning to Facebook has its limits, Broderick said.
“You go into The Villages Word of Mouth and people attack you,” she said. “Even if you just ask for recommendations, they’re like, ‘What are you doing living in The Villages? You don’t belong here.’ Do you pay my rent? Then it doesn’t matter if you think I belong here or not.”
‘The Villages: Young Adults’
Some younger residents have carved out their own space online.
“The Villages Young Adults” Facebook group, formed in December of last year, has about 400 members.
Members in their 20s and 30s recruit others for kickball teams and pickup soccer, board game nights and comedy events in the area.
Moving into a retirement community wasn’t hard for Tyler Glynn, 21, who lives with his parents while he attends Florida Southern College. A self-described “old soul,” he loved the amenities The Villages offers and enjoyed the seniors he met while golfing or playing pickleball.
“But it became evident that this is not usually a place for people like me during the pandemic, when we were stuck here and I had nobody to hang out with,” Glynn said. “I didn’t know anybody else my age. But now that I’ve found this group on Facebook, I’ve met a lot of friends, and we’ve been getting together often. That makes it a lot better.”
‘20-year-olds next door’
Many older adults who have retired in The Villages said they don’t mind the presence of young people in the community. Those who take to the internet are just louder.
“I really don’t mind, especially since they can’t have kids,” said Al Berliner, 74. “But some people do, because you bought the house because it was a 55-plus retirement community. They don’t want 20-year-olds next door.”
It may be inevitable. The Villages developers are creating designated living areas for young people working there. The Villages News reports these “community support districts” will be inside the Wildwood and Leesburg portions of The Villages and come at a time when staffing shortages plague most every industry.
Working there already comes with a perk: Children of employees are eligible to attend The Villages Charter Schools, a K-12 institution with strong academic reputation.
The owners of The Villages did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several months.
For now, it’s still expensive to live in The Villages — a factor that will likely keep some younger adults out.
Brown, the nurse, and her husband looked at housing in the community, she said, and quickly realized moving in was not feasible.
“The rent is outrageous,” she said. “A 2-bed, 2-bath was almost $1,500 a month.”
Brown admits she was relieved.
“Even if I was 68 years old, you couldn’t pay me enough to live in The Villages,” she said. “Everything was perfectly fine before they came in. Now, they’ve destroyed farmland that’s been passed down through generations. And they just continue. There’s no stopping ‘em.”
Correction: The population of The Villages is about 130,000 people. This story has been updated to correct that.