Off a vacant stretch of highway in Daytona Beach, Fla., a line began to form outside the sales center for the first Latitude Margaritaville “55 and better” community. Those waiting dragged folding chairs, coolers, tents and dog-eared brochures featuring numbered sites that, in just over 24 hours, they could stake a claim to for a $10,000 deposit. The mood, shortly after 8 a.m. one Sunday last November, was festive, ecstatic even. Drinks flowed, pizza appeared, a steel-drum band played into the balmy night. Some neighbors in the 300-person queue liked each other so much that they decided to become actual neighbors, switching their site choices to live closer together. A sense of destiny seemed to guide many of their decisions. Karen Goodwin, 55, a homemaker, had won the exact amount of the down payment a few weeks earlier in a Domino’s sweepstakes. Matt Kelly, 62, a retired firefighter, had been chipping ice off his shingles in Orange County, N.Y., when a chunk broke loose in the shape of the Sunshine State, which he took as a sign.
“I never thought I’d be in a 55-plus community,” Ruth Kelly, 61, a former real estate agent and Matt’s wife, said the following September. The three of us were sitting at a table in the dining room of the home the Kellys had secured on Cool Breeze Drive, a single-family unit with the L-shaped lanai that Ruth had had her eye on. “Being in real estate, I didn’t think I would do what we did, wait in line for 11 hours. I always told my customers: ‘Never buy in Phase 1. Never buy sight-unseen.’ I did all of that. But I never once had doubt. Not once did I feel that way. It was meant to be, I really believe that.”
Outside, under an endless blue sky, a parade of trucks bore the trappings of former homes from as far away as Hawaii, Canada and El Salvador to sorbet-colored dwellings with emerald green lawns. At the entrance to the gated enclave, past a “Barkaritaville” dog park, beeping excavators moved dirt around what would soon be a town-square for concerts and dancing, surrounded by a state-of-the-art workout center, a restaurant and a walk-in pool with cabanas and a bar. It was impossible to stand on their cement foundations — which I had, in fact, done that morning — and not see a frontier settlement being carved into an expanse of subtropical wetland. The real frontier here, though, was not the surrounding wilderness but a hitherto uncolonized stretch of time: the multiple decades that more and more Americans can expect to live in better and better health after they retire. What will these pioneers do? Who will they become? And how will that, in turn, alter the course of human history?
“We have no shared collective articulation for what later life is for, what the value of living longer is, except not dying,” says Elana Buch, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa who studies aging and labor inequality in the U.S. “We don’t have any conversations about what the point of it is, so we reproduce it from other parts of life — doing things you didn’t get to do before.”