June 21, 2005

Senior Collective

There were 3 of us chatting about the certainty of destitution in our twilight years. As each of us are approaching 40 at varying speeds, thoughts of eating Alpo out of the can at 80 start creeping in. While wondering what retirement homes will be like when we’re ready for them, JB pops up with this scenario:

Come our elderly years, there will be no Medicare, no Social Security, so no retirement homes for us. We’ll all wind up living in group homes. Not some patchouli, organic-growing hippie commune, god forbid! Not senior communities with on-staff nurses and Tuesday shuttles to Wal-Mart. Instead, we’ll be collectives of friends sharing the same house, or makeshift families of 7 pooling their meager resources to pay rent and utilities on some ground floor 2-bedroom apartment.

He said the idea only hit him as he was yammering, but it’s a wise and pragmatic forecast. We’re the generation who were the objects of custody battles when divorce became easy and trendy. We’re the kids who had to adjust to ever-changing configurations of step-families being forced upon us. And we’re the ones so shell-shocked by all manner of traditional families being blown to pieces that we only trust and rely upon our friends – our family of choice.

When talking generations, we have to define them, and then realize we’re talking in sweeping generalizations. For instance, of the 3 of us sharing the Senior Collective light bulb moment, both the guys’ original parents are still together, while my father is in competition with Elizabeth Taylor for Most Marriages. In this group, I was the exception. But usually, it’s easier to count whose original parents are still together on one hand.

About a month after this conversation, my father’s fifth wife’s daughter-in-law (or Kathy, for short) started thinking aloud about what would make a more desirable retirement community for people our age:

Each person or couple has their own small place, all of them very close together, surrounding one common area. Not like condo complexes where you pay a monthly fee so someone mows the lawns and you can ignore everyone. But a group of family and friends sharing one large lot, with everyone pitching in and taking care of one another.

When 2 different people at 2 different times come up with similar ideas, I know there’s a generational mind-set at work, and it’s already trying to find a way to work with our dim prospects for the AARP years. Maybe some Gen Xers with money are changing new-home trends, but most of us hope we can merely survive the Boomer’s aftermath relatively unscathed.

William Strauss and Neil Howe have done all the heavy lifting on generational studies, and on their prediction of the Crisis of 2020, they wrote, “Controlling the Boom may indeed emerge as the 13ers’ most fateful lifecycle mission. This will be the generation best able to deflect any Boomer drift toward apocalyptic visions. In an age of rising social intolerance, the very incorrigibility of midlife 13ers will at times be a national blessing.”

They go on to predict that this Crisis will interrupt our peak earning years, and that “history suggests 13ers will suffer a rough and neglected old age. Those who fail to provide for themselves will end up poor, by the standard of the era.” If the details they go into were a movie, it would be an NC-17 horror flick. And because Gen X will be the last generation to come of age before this “history-bending crisis,” we will be seen as rusty relics from the past because we still won’t believe in the Shangri-la that everyone but us is frolicking in.

Should even a tiny percentage of these historically based predictions come true, the Senior Collective idea goes from intriguing to necessary. And since we’ll be stranded within our own cultural wasteland, we might as well do it pop. Much like The Beatles’ in Help, we’ll walk through separate entry doors into a common house, and living together like The Monkees, our Families of Choice will be there for you, I’ll be there for you, too.

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