The Revolution Comes to Rossmoor 

As the Vietnam War generation invades senior communities, an old generation gap rears its ugly head.

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When developer Ross Cortese founded Rossmoor as part of a chain of "Leisure World" retirement campuses in 1963, he envisioned a white-picket-fence world of mainline churches, Kiwanis clubs, and golf. With mortgages guaranteed by the Federal Housing Authority, he broke ground on what would eventually become more than six thousand housing units, ranging from apartments near the Tice creekbed to luxury homes on the hillsides.

Rossmoor is among the largest planned communities in the Bay Area, a safe haven for seniors who still have some serious living to do. Most residents survived the Great Depression and World War II and built a world where you tried to fit in, ate the same mass-produced food, and looked out for your neighbors.

"Every Rossmoorian holds his head high and greets everyone he meets," wrote the editors of Rossmoor's weekly newspaper in its twentieth-anniversary edition in 1984. "[T]he welfare of Rossmoorians is protected by the friendliness of their fellow neighbors, who realize that all people their age are apt to need a helping hand. They take in each other's mail when on a trip. They notice any unexplained absences and check with security immediately. They listen for unusual noises in the night, or the lack of that usual hum of the air conditioner."

Now, a new crop is arriving: The front end of the great demographic bulge known as the baby boom is trickling into active-senior communities nationwide. According to Debbie Pate-Newberry of the California Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, the number of Californians over 65 will grow by three million by 2020. These boomers will bring their anti-establishment ethos, assertiveness, and self-consciousness with them, transforming an industry designed around a far more docile and proletarian generation. Although many boomers sank into a poverty their parents never knew, a substantial percentage enjoyed a lifetime of conspicuous consumption, marketed as the means by which they assert their individuality. They created organic produce, personal computers, designer jeans, and New Age mysticism. Born after World War II, relatively few were ever asked to sacrifice for something greater than themselves.

Retirement-industry leaders around California say they expect to invest a fortune reorganizing planned communities around a generation that refuses to be planned for. In place of cafeteria food, fraternal clubs, and arts and crafts classes, the boomers will demand Internet access, state-of-the-art fitness clubs, wine-tasting rooms, and an endless array of bistros and ethnic restaurants. Senior communities like Rossmoor once stressed volunteerism, charity fund-raising, and other pastimes that displayed a democratic, almost quaint civic-mindedness. Now that world is being eclipsed by a way of life that values privacy, "wellness," customized lifestyles, and avant-garde theater and music.

"This is a very competitive industry, and they have to make it attractive to the lifestyle the boomers want," says Amber McCracken, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Aging Research. "They are going to have to put in the funds to change the face of retirement, to change the way people think of these communities in general. Because the boomers don't want to think of themselves as aging, they don't want to think of themselves as retiring. They want to think of themselves as continuing the fun journey they've had."

Rossmoor chief executive officer Steve Adams has the unenviable task of keeping the peace as the generation gap -- now between the old and the very old -- has returned. As Rossmoor's present population inches toward the grave, he must spend millions building new facilities to attract the boomers, while older working-class residents accuse him of jeopardizing their financial security in pursuit of the next generation. "The economic picture of Rossmoor is changing," he says. "Rossmoor is looked on by the city of Walnut Creek as low-income housing, but we have homes today that routinely sell for over a million dollars. You're finding that the people who are moving in are more affluent than the people moving out. It's becoming pricier to live here than it was before."


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