Melting pot – or not?

Last Saturday morning nine of us gathered at the Waterbird Café in Manning Point. It’s a weekend ritual that involves breakfast at Mitchells Island’s finest, outside on the deck which hangs over the Manning River, watching the light dance on the river and spotting waterbirds and the occasional dolphin. As well, we do the Good Weekend quiz from the Sydney Morning Herald, a tradition that extends back decades. These were all good friends, people I love to be around, and I looked forward to some great conversation – as well as acing the quiz.

Sometimes only Rick and I are there on a Saturday morning at the Waterbird, flailing away at a quiz that rewards youth culture, pop music background, and an understanding of Aussie sports. But on this occasion, with nine good brains in attendance, I figured that we had a good chance of triumphing.

And then I noticed a potential problem. There was a certain similarity among members of the group. It dawned on me that there wasn’t a soul under 60 or much over 70, not a patch of dark skin or the strong accent indicating a faraway birth. If sheer numbers and a bit of brainpower were the rule, we’d do okay. But for the top bands of the ‘90s or a question of Asian culture, no amount of grey hair was going to help our score.

Bottom line, we were a homogeneous group with homogeneous interests. Though we were likely to have a very good time together, we might not have such a good chance at the quiz after all.

That observation tapped into a question I’ve been thinking about lately, after encountering several articles on the subject: how important is diversity in setting up a cohousing community?

Should you aim for it – or aim against it? Does it even matter? (Here’s a sample, titled Retirees Choose Intergenerational Cohousing.)

I grabbed this image off a website about diversity – Melting pot 1clichéd, perhaps, but it makes a point. The arms are different sexes, different races and different ages, which is what diversity means as a technical term in modern-day parlance.

I get the point. In encouraging diversity, you encourage tolerance – of age, sex and culture. You bypass ageism, sexism and racism. You create a strong structure.

Perhaps there’s nothing more important, if one is interested in world peace and fortifying the heart of the planet.

My life has altered over the last five years. In the workplace, I had colleagues from India, China, the Middle East. I worked closely with people who were just out of school, grandfathers, single people, married people, single mums, gays. I walked the streets and travelled on the train in a racial melting pot; people everywhere talked on their mobile phones in languages I couldn’t even identify.

There’s no doubt it was good for me. In brushing against the cross-section of age, race and sex, I was learning tolerance at a deep level. Molecules of concern about our differences were being eroded with every contact.

My life now has a different texture. If you took a photo of our Shedder arms, they’d be similarly wrinkled and similar in colour. We range in age from 63 to 70, are heterosexual and have European-heritage backgrounds.

I’m reminded of the over-55’s retirement village in Arizona where my mum and dad went for the winter. I visited them there a couple of times, once with my 14-year old daughter Jenn. The park rules were clear: children for a maximum of one week; teenagers must be accompanied by an adult; no children in the pools. Jenn wasn’t impressed. But on the other hand, my parents and the other residents loved it there, among people like themselves. Their age and race tolerance wasn’t tested.

A few weeks ago a good friend of mind, a colleague from work days, came to visit, with her twelve-year-old daughter. Those of you with grandchildren won’t be surprised that I found myself playing rummy and learning a new board game, planning meals for a picky eater, and having to stop and think about whether everyone in the party would enjoy a long car ride or a chatty dinner out. Don’t get me wrong: I loved every minute. But it required a new dimension of creativity – and tolerance. My age and race tolerance is rarely tested these days either. In my experience, that’s the norm in communities where retirees live. There is rarely the excited screech of children, the thrum of a teenager’s first car, the twang of an Indian dotara, the smell of Thai cooking in the air.

And just maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe at 60+, we’ve earned a bit of complacency. Our teenaged children, raging in a bath of complex hormones, have left home and our own hormones have finally settled. We are acquiring stoicism as we deal with deteriorating bodies; close friends our own age have died; we are learning to live with our own mortality.

Of course, diversity is never completely lacking. We have teenaged boys next door Melting pot 2(remember the triplets?). There are two big dogs from across the street who like to cavort on our lawns. We get visits from offspring in their twenties and thirties. There are two grandchildren (“the twins”) and several gorgeous grand-nieces and nephews. We sing African songs in our choir. We travel and in doing so rub shoulders with other cultures. Perhaps at this time in our lives, that’s enough.

Diversity? Or uniformity?

Challenge? Or easy harmony?

Which is best for the good of the planet? Closer to home, which is best for you as you plan your retirement years and perhaps your cohousing community?

I’d love to hear your views on this dilemma, and any conclusions you’ve reached.

By the way, the Waterbird breakfast crew was sufficiently diverse to score 17 out of 20 on the quiz, an all-time high. And we saw dolphins.

What does that mean?


7 thoughts on “Melting pot – or not?

  1. The age thing is always a funny one, and like anything else in this world, as we all get closer to something our perspective changes.

    I reel in horror every time I hear the term ‘for the over 55s’ – and look up to see a TV ad for some awful glorified caravan park with old ladies knitting around a table, and old codgers playing cards pretending to look like they are having fun – but the most striking thing is that they show old people, those North of 75!

    I’m sure some people look forward to years of quiet ‘nomality’ in which to decline, in unchallenging, beige surrounds where everything is predictable. Some ailments of age are eased by this sort of routine, but I suspect some ailments of age are accelerated by it as well!!

    That The Shedders embrace and search for external stimulation and variation is no surprise, just because a ‘family’ has homogeneity doesn’t mean that the family’s life does. Six ‘standard retirement industry over 55s’ wouldn’t have done what you guys have done, and wouldn’t be looking for more interests – they’d be waiting for Thursday because that was meatloaf for dinner.

    I look forward to turning 55, because I move up an age group in competition – no more trying to keep up with those 45+ whippersnappers.
    I recall that we gave my late Dad his mountain bike for his 68th birthday, that he was in the middle of a report for a court case when he died at almost 85, and he’d only given up overseas conference trips a couple of years earlier.

    Learning about people, places, fields of interest and anything else is the essence of life – if that stops….. Even those confined by physical impairment can maintain interests and activities, but retained mobility certainly makes things easier.

    This afternoon we have the presentation cruise for the sailing club. Members range from 4 to 70+yrs old. It’s looking like ‘two 70 yr olds with 3 eyes between them’ are going to win the club championship AGAIN – time they started coaching the middle aged crews!!

    The club has some diversity of background and ethnicity, and a very wide range of occupations and circumstances – all brought together by one common interest.

    Just like a choir………or a housing cooperative….. one common interest is all that you need to make something work.

    • As always, you make me laugh, John (while giving me pause to think). It IS about being willing to keep learning; it IS about avoiding utter predictability. No beige for me!

  2. Living with diversity can be a challenge. I live with Spanish migrants who have been in Australia for 50 years and the different assumptions can be a problem. The unspoken understandings aren’t necessarily shared or even comprehended. Little things like announcing yourself when you arrive by using the doorbell or calling out and saying “hello, any one home” and time of day restrictions on visiting like not before 8am on a Sunday morning etc. etc. had to be explained to my in-laws when they came to live 300 metres away. I think that living with people with whom you share an understanding of the “assumed” stuff and some life experiences probably helps avoid many difficulties.

    • Good example of the challenges of the melting pot (age and race, actually, right?). Your phrase, “sharing an understanding of the assumed stuff”, really captures it.

  3. Hey Heather, you forgot the 22-year-old Dutch girl! Knew the name of the band – you know, Coldplay, Cold Chisel, something like that. M

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