How the Sharing Economy Can Save Summer Vacation

A nation of freelancers can't afford their own private summer homes. But a return to the proud tradition of co-vacationing means they won't have to.

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Once summer hits, the vacation countdown begins. Time for soft ice cream at the beach or sunbathing by the lake. That is, if you can afford it.

With prices soaring on gas, hotels and summer rentals, a summer vacation is no longer within reach for much of the middle class. Paychecks are declining as the nature of work keeps changing. Full-time jobs are giving way to contract employment and gig work. It's leading more middle class professionals into the ranks of freelancers, where episodic income is the norm and paid vacation is rare.

They're not looking to own a second home. They just want to be able to take a week or two off and go someplace to relax and recharge.

It's time to reclaim summer, and the answer lies in an unlikely place: co-working. Most independent workers can't afford to lease an office on their own. So as more people enter the freelance workforce, they've started coming together to solve this problem by creating co-working spaces -- big, shared workspaces where professionals of all types work next to each other, spreading the cost.

Co-vacationing is the next step.

Co-working spaces usually offer support services freelancers want, like conference rooms, a kitchen and broadband access, giving them access to more amenities than they could have afforded solo. Plus, members get a built-in community of potential friends and business partners. Co-vacationing builds on the same idea. By pooling their resources, families can afford more of a vacation together than they could on their own.

In fact, it's the way the middle class used to do summer.

There's a long history of groups of families getting together to buy a piece of land upstate or a string of bungalows on the beach. They'd basically set up their own camps, arranging outdoor activities like fishing, swimming and tennis, and social events like campfires and dances. Kids spent their summers playing with other kids.

Labor organizations built permanent summer camps for their members, like Unity House, owned by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. In 1919, the union bought a lodge on a lake in the Poconos, built cabins and facilities, and created an affordable summer resort where workers and their families could rent rooms or bungalows. Unity House ran outdoor activities and educational programs, theaters and guest lectures until its closure in 1989.

Workmen's Circle, a fraternal organization that was part of the Jewish Labor Committee, also built a family camp in the early 1900s, called Circle Lodge, in Hopewell Junction, NY. It's still running. Members can still rent bungalows, and the camp runs outdoor activities and Jewish cultural programs.

These were not time-shares. These were complete summer communities. The difference is subtle, but important. A time-share is about an individual family getting a condo unit for a week or two of vacation -- they just take turns with hundreds of other part-owners of a resort complex. "Ownership" typically means buying a license or an investment share in a property run by a larger company.

The group vacation retreats, on the other hand, were about a collective vacation experience. People knew they'd be coming back with the same families, year after year, so they had to build a sense of community. And the property was held by the families, or the labor union, as a group asset.

By coming together, families who weren't wealthy could own a slice of summer. It's not so different from freelancers joining forces so they can all work in a nice office. They, too, gain a new community and can enjoy some of the perks that bigger (or wealthier) companies can afford. Sure, not having your own private office takes getting used to, but the success of co-working spaces shows there's an appetite for this kind of sharing.

Collective vacations aren't just a quaint experiment from the past. Some of these original summer retreats are still going strong, like the cooperatively-owned Bay Terrace Country Club, in Bayside, Queens. It was started in 1960 when 400 families got together to build a pool. Now, members enjoy summer in the middle of Queens with a pool and water slides, a swim program, sun decks and social events. Unlike a typical country club, Bay Terrace is a cooperative, so members own the club and run it together. They are not the 1%. They offer coupons for discounted summer membership and special rates for single-parent families. They host a flea market. Some members say the term country club is misleading, because it makes it sound "fancy, like a golf club." There's no golf here.

Another is the Three Arrows Cooperative Society in Putnam Valley, NY. It was started in 1936, when a group of socialists got together and bought 125 wooded acres and built a camp. It has about 75 bungalows where generations of families have spent their summers. Without a full-time staff, Three Arrows is literally run by members, which means work-duty for all. Cabins occasionally come up for sale, and newcomers must dive right in and serve on the committees that keep the place running.

These models are basically the original share economy. If the middle class wants to reclaim summer and make it affordable again, we need to bring back that tradition of collective ownership. Co-working has shown that we can rethink the way we work; it's time to rethink the way we relax and recharge. This about more than just summer vacation. It's about pooling our resources in ways that help us live better.