Age diversity

View from a hill, of suburban housing in Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt City. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1959/3673-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30644125

However attractive green field and scorched earth planning is, that kind of utopia isn’t coming anytime soon. What is coming is managed retreat from flood and liquefaction areas, some population growth (though this might not be as significant as the former) and an aging population. The ‘aging’ I talking about isn’t just to do with people living longer, but also with decreasing fertility rates, that is people choosing not to have children.

New Zealand’s total fertility rate has shown similar trends to other countries, including Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and United States.

Although fertility rates are decreasing, we still have a population that is increasing in size through migration and natural increase (more births than deaths). However, a total fertility rate below replacement level over a longer period of time can lead to population decrease. For example, Japan’s total fertility rate has been consistently below 2.1 since 1974, and with limited migration it has had a decreasing population since 2011.

‘New Zealand’s birth rate lowest on record, deaths drop in 2020’ Stats.NZ, 18 February 2021, 10:45am.

I’m not one to declare the production of babies a natural-god-given-fulfilment-of-biological-necessity. In fact I am not worried about the decline in births at all. But I do think communities are strongest (‘resilient’) when diversity is celebrated – and here specifically I am talking about age-diversity.

Some of the most disturbing ‘anti-social’ behaviour occurs in spaces where people have been ghettoised based on age: think of school playgrounds, city streets, Courtenay Place Bars, parliament, retirement villages etc. This can happen in suburbs too, where there is a tendency toward fluctuating age bands: as the housing stock reaches a certain age it passes hands, or perhaps there was a phase when a particular suburb was unfashionable and ‘first-home-buyers’ moved in. Then the population ages all together, they get more comfortable, perhaps the suburb gentrifies, a certain amount of nimby-ism kicks in and any suggestion of building smaller housing incites a “whose moving into my neighbourhood?!” type reaction. I might answer with : “you are getting to stay into your own neighbourhood you silly man – do you think at 80 you are still going to want or need a 1/4-acre section?”

It is quite disturbing to think of a time when children will be scarce – films like ‘The Children of Men’ (2006, Alfonso Cuarón) push the idea to extreme, dystopian ends – but the reality is there, and probably closer than we think. What will it be like to not see the next generation coming, and not feel the obligation to take care that comes with it? … shuffling our older generations off into institutional care has a similar effect. Giving and receiving care is the grist of socialisation. Failing to do either is a symptom of being a sociopath… or should be.

As much as we may or may not be concerned by our own lack of children or an excess of years, what I find disturbing is the thought of how those children might grow up – whether they will experience the world as rare-birds, as marginalised mis-fits, as the residue of a species in decline. The thought that these children might live in isolated enclaves far from other kids creeps me out.

Block-Party by SpaceCraft Architects (c.2023)

An architectural solution – or perhaps remediation – just living closer together. When the very young and the very old are encouraged to engage in an everyday way. And taking care of each other is just how we’ll all get along. And I’m not talking about multi-family homes suffering from overcrowding – but real housing solutions that recognised the compound value of being in a diverse community.


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