Peace, Love, and Social Security: Baby Boomers Retire to the Commune

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As they simplify their lives in middle age, former hippies find themselves returning to the land

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David Frohman/Douglas Stevenson

When she first found the place that would one day become her retirement home, Kathy Connors was 16 years old and seven months pregnant. She left the Chicago suburbs and hitched a ride with a trucker she knew to a commune in south-central Tennessee. The commune, called the Farm, had about a dozen midwives who would deliver any woman's baby for free. Kathy had arranged to have her child there.

In late June of this year, Kathy, now 50, and her 62-year-old husband Bob drove with their 28-year-old daughter Joyce from Charlotte, North Carolina, to the Farm. Kathy visits about three times a year, but this was a special visit. It was the Farm's 40th reunion, but it was also, more importantly, the visit when Kathy would finalize plans to build the home where she and Bob planned to spend the rest of their lives.

On the drive down, Kathy's phone buzzed with texts and updates from the Farm Facebook group. Friends were posting photos and status updates. It was a big party and Kathy couldn't wait to get there.

Crossing the Tennessee border, Bob, usually a quiet man, shouted, "Welcome to Tennessee!" The family cheered. Kathy's stomach fluttered and her heart beat faster. She sent a text to an acquaintance, "the closer I get to my true home, the better I always feel."


Kathy and Bob Connors are among a handful of former Farm members who are moving back in middle age. This choice reflects that of a growing number of Baby Boomers who are choosing to retire to intentional communities, an umbrella term for living situations organized around a common value structure or vision.

Although hard figures are impossible to determine, Laird Schaub, the executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, estimates that the United States has about 4,000 intentional communities with a combined population of about 100,000. The number and population of intentional communities grew most dramatically between 1965 and 1975. Some were artists' collectives, religious communes, or self-help oriented communes, says Timothy Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Kansas, in his book The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Others were born out of a broader idealism that aimed to rebuild the world from the ground up.

In his book The Hippies and American Values, Timothy Miller,writes:

They questioned the very rationality upon which Western culture has been built. To the counterculturists, reason had run its course; now it was time to return to the mystical and intuitional. The products of centuries of reason-dominated cultures were thrown into question as well: the hippies rejected the industrial for the agrarian, the plastic for the natural, the synthetic for the organic. Finally they challenged the formidable Western tradition of seeing the individual on a pedestal; for the hippies, communal values stood over the rights and privileges of individual persons.

The Farm's recruitment book, Hey Beatnik!, published in 1974, largely reflected Miller's observations. It referred to America's economy as being on a "speed trip," criticized overconsumption, meat-eating, organized religion, higher education and politics, and rejected individualism:

We say that we're like a mental nudist colony, and you have to take off your head clothes. We just don't believe in that level of privacy, because we'd rather be sane than be highly individualistic.

Communes began dropping off in the 1980s, although why that happened is hard to say, said Schaub.

"It doesn't really match up with recessions or boom cycles in the economy or which party controls the White House or whether the Berlin Wall was standing or falling," he said.

The individual communes' fates were as unique as their births, according to Timothy Miller. "Some communes went out with a bang, some with a whimper, and some are still going--robustly or feebly, publicly or privately, with the same leadership and ideals they had two or three decades ago or heading in some new direction," he wrote in The 60s Communes.

Douglas Stevenson, a 57-year-old former Farm manager and unofficial spokesman for the community, said that for many, communal living was a youthful experiment rather than a lifelong commitment. Because so many young adults joined communes in the 1960s and 1970s, it followed that they left en masse in the 1980s when they grew older.

"There were people who were in it for the long haul and those that weren't," said Stevenson. " It's like hair. There were the people who grew out their hair and it became their life and the people who had long hair then they had curly hair then they had short hair and it wasn't a whole lifestyle change."

What kept the Farm around at all when so many other communities disappeared, he said, was that its sheer numbers helped it weather the changeover from commune to coop. During the 1980s, the community created a new government structure, and over time members paid off the debt on the land.

"If you only had 15 to 20 people," he said, "and you had a breakdown among the members the whole thing crashed. We were large enough that we could absorb a lot of crises."

Intentional Communities have been going through another surge in popularity since 2005, according to the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Young adults in their 20s and 30s originally drove their growth, said Schaub. But this time, something different is happening.

"That group is still there, and in addition there are a lot of people over 50 trying it for the first time," said Schaub. "That's really different from what we had before."

Take Helen Spector, a 65-year-old organization development consultant. Along with her husband, also a consultant, she moved this year from California to join a cohousing community in Oregon.

"We both spend a lot of time teaching people how to work together," she said, and yet they were living in relative isolation from neighbors in their 2800-square-foot house.

Now that they are living in a cohousing development in Oregon, where private homes are small and common spaces and many appliances are shared with dozens of people, they are exploring the concept of interdependence.

"What does it mean to live in a way that we actually do and are willing to depend on others and support others?" she asked. It's a daily challenge, she said, but one that they feel compelled to take on.

***

Over the years, Kathy returned to the Farm for visits, taking her daughters down for a week that would extend into two. Two weeks would become three, three a month. They grew close to a family named the Skinners and would stay with them. When the Connors' daughter Barbara Ann finished high school and did not know what she wanted to do next, her parents sent her down to the Farm to live with the Skinners and paid $100 a month for her food. And more than 10 years later, now that Kathy and Bob are ready to move back, they are taking over the site the Skinners' daughter is leaving to move in with her boyfriend a few roads down.

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Anna Spinner is a freelance writer in New York.

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