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Small Town/Home Base

Posted Dec 04 2011 12:52pm
old artist mentors young

from The Art of Aging: A Celebration of Old Age in Western Art, 1987, McKee, P.L. and Kauppinen, H. New York: Insight Books

 

(Note: Scroll to the end for information about an upcoming national conference call on Communities for a Lifetime)

My town of Bloomington likes to claim John Mellencamp as one of its most famous citizens, but Mr. Mellencamp was actually born and raised in Seymour, Indiana, down Highway 65 about 50 miles. So when he sings about “small town”, he’s not talking about Bloomington. Relative to Seymour, Bloomington was the big city when John decided to bring his band to the Bluebird cafe. I think he was known as Johnny Cougar back in those days. As a new graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University, I remember Johnny Cougar flyers on telephone posts but can’t say I made the clubs in those years (or now for that matter).

Seymour’s loss was Bloomington’s gain. But it’s an old story, as creative young people have always seen “getting out of town” as the first step to success in life. When the small town doesn’t provide opportunities for young people, you either leave or you feel trapped.

And there’s another thread to this story. The old people? They remain behind.

So what makes this old story different now?

The scale of the issue: small towns provide fewer and fewer opportunities for young people and there are more and more and more older people. This is the central point of Kimon Koulet’s wise comment to my last blog. Kimon is a planning professional in a New Hampshire region with a median age of 45.2, older than the state of Maine, the oldest state in the country. Kimon echoes comments I have heard from many small town Mayors and public officials. They are searching for new economic strategies that can deter the forces that stretch and snap the geographic ties between youth and age.

I am aware of but a few isolated attempts to turn the perceived burden of an aging population into an economic engine. But I believe the conversation has started.

One approach emphasizes the older person as consumer. This is central to “retiree retention and attraction” strategies, characteristically but not entirely, practiced by tourism promoters in southern states. Knowing that prior touristic behavior is a strong predictor of relocation and resettlement, several of these programs receive direct support from state departments of tourism (Mississippi and Louisiana, for example). More recently, towns in the New West have positioned themselves as retirement destinations, often beating out the traditional “sunny climes” model of the previous generation of retirees. Truly, entire regions in the New West have been transformed from extractive to service-based economies, organized around the needs and portfolios of a retired population.

A second approach emphasizes the older person as a patient. I am stretching the point, but, in my experience, I see public officials eagerly competing to receive the economic benefits of the latest institutional response to the health care needs of the elderly – assisted living, long term nursing facilities, and shiny new hospitals.

All well and good, but narrowly focused and missing the real opportunities to organize local economies not around the passive needs of older adults but around their productive potential. This is the town I am looking for and I urge readers to help me find the model…

It’s a town that actively cultivates and supports “elderpreneurs”, through development of work/live environments on newly enriched downtown main streets. It provides start-up consultancies (has an active SCORE chapter). At the same time, it supports elders in the creative class to mentor and hire young people into their professions and businesses. It creates a vibrant downtown culture that integrates, rather than segregates elders from hip young professionals.  It doesn’t support a rave venue and it doesn’t create a downtown senior center that is off-putting to young people. One of the hippest places I ever enjoyed is the Center for Southern Folklore in the heart of downtown Memphis. Talk about integrating old and young! 

It’s a town that attracts new industries that derive particular benefit from a mature work force interested in part-time and/or seasonal employment, with flexible benefits and a socially enticing climate.

It’s a town that makes it easier to get by on a lower level of attachment to the mass market. Because it’s compact, walkable and bikeable, one can seriously consider abandoning that costly auto. Because it celebrates and cultivates creativity at all ages, it is a town that is beautiful, exciting, unpredictable, and stimulating. Because so many new workers in the digital age (young and old) can work from “anywhere”, this town is totally wired – local and global at the same time.

I am guessing there are elements of this town in many areas of the country. What I am looking for is the town that has put all of this together, intentionally and comprehensively, and has accumulated evidence that it works – that it creates a local economy that keeps and attracts creative and productive citizens and future citizens, both young and old. If you find one, call me!!!

Shameful Plug: Join me and others in an interesting discussion of these topics in the next Community Matters phone call, Dec. 8, 2011: http://www.communitymatters.org/communities-all-ages


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