Why build Communities for a Lifetime?

A community that supports the health and vitality of its residents, yields a healthy and vital community

While a community is made up of a wide array of important features, a community’s most vital resource is its residents.  A community’s residents maintain homes and neighborhoods, own businesses that provide jobs and essential services, raise and educate children and youth, and lead public, faith-based and nonprofit organizations.  The community residents are the community.  Health and vitality do not come about by accident; if residents thrive, communities thrive, and vice versa.

All people want to live in a great community, and once they find it, they want to stay!

If a resident has developed a sense of pride and appreciation for their community, they will want to stay.  Even more, residents that are successful and feel pride in their community often generously give back to their community.  However, even residents that experience challenging life circumstances, such as a job loss, a change in health, or a temporary or permanent disability, will want to remain in the community they love.  Communities that are livable, offering a high quality of life and features that make day-to-day life easier for people as they face changes, will retain residents with an invaluable sense of community pride.

Smart community improvements are improvements that benefit a wide array of residents

When communities commit scarce resources to a program, service, or project, they want to make the most of their investment.  This is especially true during tight financial times.  Communities for a lifetime suggests one key strategy for maximizing the use of scarce resources: ensure that community improvements benefit the widest possible array of residents.  For example, community projects that improve physical accessibility, provide alternative forms of transportation, increase housing variety and affordability, or encourage flexible and supportive employment opportunities, benefit younger adults, working families, veterans, people with temporary or permanent disabilities, and older adults alike.       

People are living longer, including people with disabilities and chronic illness

Our older adult population is projected to grow because of the size of the baby boom generation, but also because people are living longer.  Due to extraordinary medical advances in the past half century, this is true for people with relatively good and poor health, and increasingly for people with various disabilities.  This means that a growing number of people with physical or mental limitations, whether temporary or ongoing, will be working, living, socializing, and accessing services in their community.

Communities around Minnesota are aging

For years we have understood that the baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, is an unusually large group, and we have seen the group change many systems as they have grown up.  In 2011, the leading edge of the baby boom begins turning 65, the beginning of a permanent shift toward an older population.

Many communities are waking up to the implications of what has been termed America’s “age wave.”  While we will face considerable challenges as we adjust to an older population—rising health and long term care costs, a changing work force, and public revenue shortages—communities can soften the blow, or better, turn some of these challenges into opportunities if they plan for the future and think strategically.  The following are three examples: 

Opportunity 1: Community-wide wellness 
Many individual baby boomers and members of subsequent generations have shown a great commitment to wellness, but our social environments have often failed to support healthy habits, including daily activity, nutritious diets, and social involvement.  If communities want to put the brakes on rising health care costs, lessen the burden on area employers who share the cost, and free up resident income that could otherwise be spent in local businesses, promoting community-wide wellness is a good strategy.

Opportunity 2: Experienced work force 
Our work force is aging and the number of younger workers entering the workforce will shrink dramatically over the next 20 years.  However, age can be redefined as an advantage.  The work force is as experienced, knowledgeable and productive as it has ever been.  Also, many members of the baby boomer generation have indicated through national surveys that they will continue to work beyond traditional retirement age.  At the same time, a growing number of persons with disabilities are able and willing to join the workforce with the needed supports.  If communities are smart, they will partner with local employers to attract and retain these valuable residents and workers as the labor force shrinks and ages in the coming years.

Opportunity 3: Later life entrepreneurship and civic engagement
Few would disagree that the baby boomers have been an especially innovative and creative generation.  There is little doubt that innovation will be a major theme in the next chapter of the baby boomer experience.  One way later life will likely be re-created by the boomers is that they will start businesses and civic projects, rather than retire in leisure.  Also, a growing national conversation about civic engagement in later life predicts invaluable social investments are on the horizon as boomers seek to contribute in meaningful ways through non-paid work.  If communities want to weather financial droughts of public revenue in the future, they might do well to plant and nurture a local crop of later life entrepreneurs and experienced volunteers.