When Ted Fishman was invited to Sarasota to speak about his best-selling China, Inc., he was amazed to see a thousand people—most of them seniors—packed into the Hyatt ballroom. Kerry Kirschner, head of the Argus Foundation, interviewed Fishman on stage. “What’s your next book?” Kirschner asked. “I think it’s going to be about global aging,” said Fishman. “Would Sarasota be a good place to study?” Would it ever, replied Kirschner, rattling off all sorts of reasons. When Fishman got the contract for the book, he called Kirschner and asked him to arrange some interviews.
Those interviews lead off Fishman’s much-applauded new book, Shock of Gray. The book examines how the entire world is changing “as a result of mankind’s greatest gift to itself, the engineering of longer lives.” Soon, for the first time in human history, old people—many of them very old people—will outnumber young people, and that, Fishman, says, is changing every aspect of life on earth—it’s even the force driving globalization.
Pretty little Sarasota happens to be at the epicenter of that change. Of all U.S. counties with more than 250,000 people, we are by far the oldest (a third of our residents are 65 or older). We are already where the rest of the world will soon be. That made us the perfect research lab for Fishman, and he spent three long visits here, interviewing everyone from cultural leaders to physicians.
Anyone who loves Sarasota will love Fishman’s book, because it turns out we are the star of the story—a place, he concludes, that “at its best, may be the finest place in the world for older people to make new homes.” He writes about the exceptional arts and educational opportunities here, and the pivotal role older people play in the community’s social, intellectual and philanthropic life.
“I knew Sarasota was culturally rich,” he told me, “but I had no idea how culturally dense it was.” He contrasts Sarasota, “where the expectation is that retirees will live life full bore,” with industrial Midwestern cities, “where everything in the air tells you you’re past your date of use by your 50s.” Imagine how exhilarating it is for people in their 60s, he says, to leave those cities and come to sunny Sarasota and discover, “You’re still a kid!”
We editors were so impressed by Fishman’s dead-on analysis of our city that we’ve made an excerpt from his book the centerpiece of this special issue about retirement and baby boomers. The first of some 77 million baby boomers turned 65 this year, and for Sarasota, that’s big news. Even though most boomers got a financial shellacking in recent years, many still plan to retire to a warm, engaging place.
Elsewhere in this issue, demographic expert Brad Edmondson predicts those retiring boomers will add their own spin to a Sarasota retirement—just as they have to every other stage of life. More educated and healthier than previous generations, they’ll continue to pursue the cultural opportunities that Fishman writes about. But they’ll also live in smaller houses and look for fun on a budget, enjoying such inexpensive activities as biking and yoga classes.
And though they may not have as much money to throw around as those who came before them, chances are they will be just as happy. Indeed, says Fishman, “The reasons why Sarasota is attractive to well-to-do people are the same reasons it’s attractive to the not so well-to-do.” That means it’s a great place for caregivers and restaurant owners as well as the well-heeled seniors they serve. When I asked him what sets Sarasota apart from other wealthy retirement communities, he said it’s the level of engagement here. “In other communities, people build grand houses and spend their time filling them with chachkas. In Sarasota, you spend and build on experiences,” he said. “Research shows that when people spend on experiences, they remember them more and it means much more than when they spend on things.”