Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sandhill's Demographic Transition

This morning, long-term Sandhill members Käthe & Michael picked up a U-Haul truck in preparation for their departure from the community early tomorrow. After seven-and-a-half years, they're "retiring" to land they own in southern Missouri, to be nearer Käthe's adult children, Molina (in Columbia MO) and Andrew (in Fayetteville AR).

While it's always hard losing people who've been part of the family for so long (in 35 years we've only said goodbye to a handful of people who lived here more than four years as adults: Grady, Jules, Annie, French, and Bekka), Käthe & Michael's departure also signals a sea change. In the next few months, Sandhill will get significantly younger.

Käthe & Michael are both near 60 (as are Stan and I) and Gigi is in her late 40s, we added Apple as a member last year and she's only her late 30s. Emily joined a month ago and she's hasn't yet reached the age that Jack Weinberg said (circa 1965) that you couldn't trust anyone past the age of. This winter we're expecting Trish & Joe to move up from St Louis and they're a couple in their late 20s with a one-year-old son. By spring, for the first time in two decades, a majority of our adult population will be under 40. Our average age will be in free fall, plummeting from somewhere around 57 to 42. I'm excited about this. We're nearing the end of our first generation of members, and we need to be thinking about what's going to happen next.

Instead of having almost everyone approaching senior status—which is where we were headed about five years ago—we'll be much more intergenerational. This bodes well for Sandhill's ongoing viability as a community. An unbalanced age distribution is one of the trickier things for small groups to manage as they mature. There are some groups—such as Springtree (Scottsville VA) and Christ Church of the Golden Rule (Willits CA)—which have essentially gotten too old to continue beyond the current membership.

While fading into the sunset is not necessarily a bad thing, it's more satisfying handing the baton off to a younger generation, to build on what we old fogies have begun. (In Sandhill's case, hopes for the continuation of our beachhead of cooperative culture in southern Scotland County is immeasurably strengthened by the vibrancy of our neighboring communities, Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth Farms, and does not rest solely on the shoulders of Sandhill. We have the luxury of not having all of our cooperative eggs in a single basket.)

Still, there are challenges ahead. Having a clutch of younger folks join gives us prospects, but that's not the same as a sure thing. We have to integrate these new folks into the community, enhancing the chances that they'll become the core of the long-term membership that will be here 25 years from now. Crucial to this succeeding will be the ability of the remaining long-term folks (Stan, Gigi, and I) to create genuine openings for the newer members to do things their way and to establish variations in the community's rhythms. We have to do better than simply "allowing" them to do what we did; we have to support their making changes. In short, we have to midwife the transition of Sandhill becoming their community (and not roll our eyes when they suggest overhauling long-established routines). If we insist they wait until we're dead, the community will be dead.

These challenges notwithstanding, I'm optimistic about what's ahead. We offer new members a community with built facilities, no debt, and established income streams. We're living in the midst of a three-community neighborhood that's thriving, have good local relations, and abundant gardens with topsoil we've been amending and nurturing since the day we first arrived in 1974. (As far as I'm concerned, healthy topsoil is better than money in the bank.)

• • •
Käthe & Michael's leave-taking seems propitious. They're departing on good terms to a new life adventure that they're eagerly awaiting. Simultaneously, Sandhill will be turning a page, and opening a new chapter in its future, seeing if it can reinvent itself. It should be interesting times all around.

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