We are newly old. As life expectancies have lengthened and the rates of childbirth and premature mortality have dropped, the world population aged 60 and over tripled to 600 million in the latter half of the 20th century, and is expected to triple again by 2050. Moreover, said population is growing more rapidly than the population as a whole, at a ratio of 2.6 to 1.1 percent per year. In 2047, the number of old people is projected to exceed the number of children under the age of 15 globally for the first time in human history.
The result, broadly, of worldwide trends in economic growth, industrialization, and related advances in healthcare and technology, this gerontic condition has been greeted with both praise and trepidation, assessed varyingly as both a “longevity revolution” and a “demographic time bomb.” Whether this shift is to be feared or embraced, it is giving rise to novel forms of aging. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the young-old, the focus of Danish architect Deane Simpson’s recent book Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society (Lars Müller; $50). Coined in 1974 by gerontologist Bernice Neugarten, the term describes a resoundingly healthy and surprisingly independent subgroup of the elderly, who, thanks to the also relatively new—and perhaps increasingly precarious—institution of retirement, as well as the decline of multigenerational living, are freed in their advanced age from the demands of work, education, and family. Rejuvenated by organ transplants, breast implants, and libido enhancers, able to afford doses of Botox, canned oxygen, and hormonal anti-aging treatments, the young-old is a sort of leisure-naut, tasked with exploring an unheard-of amount of unstructured time.
Simpson aptly describes the situation as a crisis of precedent, referring to the young-old’s “lack of existing scripts and protocols directing how, where, and with whom persons might live in this new, historically unprecedented phase of life.” His book surveys some of the responses to that crisis, focusing on a number of age-specific communities singularly devoted to the pursuit of leisure. Simpson’s analysis revolves around a set of case studies: three historical, four contemporary, mostly in the United States but also in Spain and Japan. There’s an air of utopia about them that’s both earnest and calculated. As the young-old search for ways to live their lives, real-estate developers realize there’s money to be made.
What do these resulting “utopias” look like? Their roots run back to the establishment in the 1950s and ’60s of age-segregated retirement communities like Arizona’s Youngtown and Sun City, whose successes set the standard for what’s followed. The young-old gravitate to places in the equatorial band described by Spanish architect Juan Palop-Casado as the “geometry of paradise.” Enjoying year-round access to the sun, these communities are inhabited mostly, if not entirely, by retirees, whose needs and requirements are catered to above those of other demographics; and the locations are usually aggressively sold by developers as resembling theme parks you can live in—lifetime vacation spots. Overt theming of place is important, as it allows the young-old to establish a particular sense of locale unique to them. See, for example, the retired British migrants who, taking advantage of European Union policy granting freedom of movement and the ability to buy property throughout the continent, have colonized Spain’s Costa del Sol from the bottom up as consumers, building a monoculture of British pubs, Anglican churches, and English bookstores. There, in what its residents call “Europe’s retirement home,” as Simpson notes, the retirees have created a non-place somewhere between an imaginary, idealized Spain of infinite sun and repose and the historical Britain of their past. Or, to look to Simpson’s other non-American example, one can live in an actual theme park like Japan’s Huis Ten Bosch, which has attracted upward of several million visitors per year as a sort of Platonic ideal of a Dutch town. Residents and out-of-towners (¥4,800 for a one-day pass) can stroll along Dutch-style canals, walking over bricks actually imported from the Netherlands, and enjoy Dutch-themed events like horse parades, tulip festivals, and cheese-making workshops led by Dutch agronomy students.