By Pam McDonald
Publisher Steve Moran interviews Chip Conley for Foresight Radio. Conley, who has reimagined senior living as regenerative communities, was first interviewed by Steve in 2018 about his book that introduces the concept of modern elderhood. Steve continues the dialogue with Chip in subsequent interviews, most recently focusing on Chip’s plans for regenerative senior living. Below is a lightly edited version of the interview or you can listen to it here.
STEVE: Steve Moran here, I’m talking to Chip Conley and he is the modern elder. Is it fair to call you that?
CHIP: Well, that would suggest there’s only one, but I am a modern elder; maybe the first one designated as a modern elder.
STEVE: Yeah, I guess I sort of think of you as the prototypical modern elder, certainly not the only one. I guess, technically I’m older than you, so maybe even I’m a modern elder.
CHIP: An elder is different than an elderly person. An elderly person is at a specific stage of life, whereas an elder is a relative term that depends on who you’re surrounded by. So, if you’re surrounded by young people, which I was when I spent eight years at Airbnb, yes, I am a modern elder. That’s how the name came about because they started calling me that.
STEVE: That is cool. So, you have over the last four or five years deeply immersed yourself in this idea of aging well. Is that a fair description?
CHIP: Yeah, and maybe shifting our mindset on aging and cultivating and harvesting our wisdom.
STEVE: It first manifested with your book, Modern Elder, and then the Modern Elder Academy in Mexico. Now you’ve got a brand-new project, which is what I want to talk about today. So, let’s just give a high-level overview, and then we’ll circle back to motivation.
CHIP: Okay. So, we started the Modern Elder Academy down here in Baja, which is about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas, in January 2018. And it’s been . . . we have 1,250 people who’ve gone through our program from 24 countries, and it’s been really popular. It’s sort of a midlife wisdom school. It’s where people go to repurpose themselves. When COVID came along we were struck with the question, what do we do now? Because for six-and-a-half months, we didn’t have anybody here in Baja on campus. And then we reopened with something called Sabbatical Sessions, which are longer stays with a little bit lighter programming.
But we knew we wanted to do something in the United States. So that’s when we started searching out regional markets where we could create MEA’s first regenerative community. And I’ll talk to you in a minute about what that is. We ended up selecting the northern New Mexico area and found a 2,600-acre ranch outside of Santa Fe. We closed escrow on it in January and have just publicly announced that we’re creating maybe the world’s first regenerative community.
What Is a Regenerative Community?
STEVE: So, what’s it going to look like?
CHIP: Well, what is it? What is a regenerative . . .?
STEVE: Yeah, so what is it?
CHIP: You’ll appreciate this, Steve, because you’re a bit of a rebel and an innovator in your thinking. If Del Webb is to 20th-century retirement communities, I’m hoping that MEA will be to 21st-century regenerative communities. What does that mean? Well, I think we can learn some things from senior living and from the retirement community movement of the last 60 years. I think retirement communities had a place and they still do, let’s be clear. And for certain people, it’s exactly what they want.
But what we know is that there’s a growing number of people, especially boomers and gen-Xers, who don’t want to live their later years the way their parents did. They might want to live stay-at-home as long as possible. They might want to live in some kind of intentional community that’s not too hippy-dippy but is more . . . there’s a common ethos there. We see some of the retirement community world moving in that direction with Kendal creating their Enzo project up in the wine country that’s got a Buddhist flavor to it. And there are more and more niche products.
Well, our point of view is the following: there are a lot of people who would prefer to have a farm instead of a fairway in front of their home. And a regenerative farm and ranch is one of the best ways to actually adjust climate change as well. The four principles or pillars that define the regenerative community MEA-style, are the following: how do we regenerate the soil, which is what regenerative farming is all about?
Regenerate the Soil
CHIP: And the classic collateral benefit of that is you have a farm in front of your home that is actually bringing you the produce that you’re eating each day. And in fact, once a week, you go into the garden with your fellow community members, and you pick things that you can use in your own home. Additionally, isn’t it nice to have a farm-to-table restaurant right there in your own community? So, regenerate the soil.
Regenerate the Soul
CHIP: Regenerate the soul, and that’s what MEA has been about. The Modern Elder Academy is a workshop program, so our regenerative communities will have an Academy that can do two workshops simultaneously, whereas here in Baja, we can only do one. And that is a way for people to regenerate themselves.
You know, our average age is young, it’s 54, young relative to a normal retirement community. But the people who have bought at our first beta regenerative community here in Baja, 26 people, the average age is about 60. So, people are looking at how do they move into a place that actually regenerates their soul and then regenerates community.
CHIP: So that’s the third pillar: how do we regenerate community? Because actually, we have an epidemic of loneliness. It’s at all ages. It’s not just young, it’s not just old, it’s actually at all ages. And so, one of the things we’ve seen as a collateral benefit of MEA is we regenerate communities. We have 23 regional chapters around the world of MEA. And when people go into a cohort and spend a week together, they stay in touch with each other for years. And, in fact, some of these cohorts have weekly zoom calls to me years later.
Regenerate the Locale
CHIP: And then the fourth regeneration is regenerating the locale. How are we creating a place that’s better by us being there than if we weren’t there? And that’s unusual. A lot of times real estate development has a collateral negative effect. And what we know for sure is that many retirement communities . . . I don’t remember who it is. I think it might’ve been Bill Thomas, or it might’ve been someone else who said there’s a bit of an age apartheid going on there. There’s a separation from the community as opposed to an integration.
And so, what we plan to do is to use intergenerational collaboration as a core piece of what we’re doing. One of our locations in the Santa Fe area is right next door to the university. So, we’ll have lots of great intergenerational learning going on there.
So those are the four pillars: regenerating the soil, the soul, the community, and the locale. If we do that well, what we’ve created is a place where people are not retiring, they’re regenerating. And if you look at those two words retiring is to move off into seclusion. Regeneration is about actually breathing life into something. And that’s what we hope to do with our community members.
What Does It Look Like?
STEVE: And are there going to be apartments, houses, hotels? What’s it actually going to look like?
CHIP: So, each one will be different. With 2,600 acres, we could build a lot, but actually, because it’s a very pristine part of nature, most of it will have a conservation easement. So, we’ll have a handful of homes, to be determined how many for the first one, and it will be for-sale homes.
But what we’ll also be able to offer is because let’s say there are, theoretically, 30 homes in the first development. Half those people may be using it as a second home. And so those people, when they’re not there, can actually put the home into a rental pool, and that allows us to do what we call sabbatical sessions, which allows someone to come here as we just had here in Baja. A woman who was writing a book and she’s gotten a big advance. It’s her first book, and it’s just got an amazing story. It’s a bit of a memoir and got a big advance, and so she came down here to write.
So, you could have someone in the community who’s renting and doing what we call our sabbatical sessions while we’ve got two workshops and a residential part of the property where people are living full-time. They’re also taking advantage of all of the great farming and regenerative agriculture that we’ll have.
STEVE: So, I assume that means there’s going to be in addition to the homes some sort of short-stay casitas or something, right?
CHIP: Yes. We won’t have a hotel, but we will have places for people to stay in homes as well as casitas. The other thing that we’re looking at . . . here’s the bigger idea. The bigger idea is we have two locations in northern New Mexico — in the Santa Fe area, one in town in Santa Fe, one outside of town with 2,600 acres. Both of them have an Academy, homes, as well as a clubhouse and a farm. Then after that, we’ll have a hub and spoke system. A series of regenerative communities with a farm, a clubhouse, and maybe 50 to 100 homes.
And so, the bulk of our people in our broader community will live in those communities. And then when we bring Brene Brown or some famous person to do a workshop with us, she on Wednesday night will give a talk to the broader community. So, you can live in Taos or Los Alamos or Tesuque, or northern Albuquerque, in one of our communities. But also, be part of the broader community and know that ‘Oh gosh, once a week, I get a speaker who comes’ or ‘there’s a workshop leader who comes down to my clubhouse in my particular residential community and gives a talk there just to our group of people who live there.’ So, once we do that in northern New Mexico, we will look at the next regions, probably the East Coast, the Southeast, et cetera.
STEVE: So, as I look at getting older, there are two things that I’m looking at right now. First, in my day-to-day life, my typical friendships probably are people who are 15 to 20 years younger than I am. And so, being in any kind of age segregation where people are likely to be mostly my age sort of gives me the willies, Actually. It really scares me. My bottom end of the cohort is . . . every weekend I teach a bunch of fifth- and sixth-graders at my church. And they’re my peeps. So, I’m this old guy in there, but I fit right in. And I don’t want to lose those kinds of things.
CHIP: Well, there’s no doubt that intergenerational collaboration and connection is valuable for both parties, the old and the young.
STEVE: That’s right.
CHIP: And I think there is more and more evidence to show that wisdom doesn’t just flow downhill from old to young, but actually you can learn a few things from younger people too. Not just the technology. Yes, social media technology, they understand it better than I do. But actually, just how the world works today.
And I think there’s a different perspective. I grew up with the three-stage life. You learn, you earn, then you retire. And if you talk to someone who’s in their 20s today, they look at you like ‘What I’m going to retire at 37 and I’m going to then take two years off, take a gap couple of years, and then I’m going to go get my master’s somewhere. And then I’m going to go back and start a new career.’
It’s very episodic. So, there’s lots to be learned from younger people. And so why we segregate by age in our modern American society, it doesn’t make sense anymore. Especially in the workplace where we have five generations for the very first time.
All Kinds of Friends
STEVE: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s interesting. I realized that my mindset, and I think this is true for yours, is a lot different than a lot of people my age. I’ve got a number of friends who are retiring, and I’ve had two conversations where they’ve said, ‘You know, I’ve got a great life. I’ve made lots of friends and I think I actually have enough friends.’ And that is really a puzzle to me because I never have enough friends; there’s so much I can learn from people. So, maybe I’m pretty atypical on this.
CHIP: Well, I think the idea of community — first of all, there are all kinds of friends. You can have acquaintances. There are acquaintances. There are people who you’ve known for your whole life, who you don’t really know all that well. Often, they’re your parents or your sisters and brothers. And there’s not been the depth of conversation because you didn’t grow up with that.
So, I would just say obviously, make new friends and keep the old. I learned that in church. So, long story short, what Phil Pizzo, [founding director of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute] has shown is purpose, wellness, and community are the three things that people really need to focus on if their 60 and up, especially if they’re retiring. And so, community is an important part of that and the replenishment of community means bringing new people in who bring new perspectives to you.
Now, one of the challenges with people as they get older is if you’re just surrounding yourself with people who think like you and talk like you, you end up in a bit of an echo chamber and you don’t breathe new life into your curiosity and your way of exploring the world. So, I think there’s a lot to be said for meeting new people and we do know that the number one thing that people in the MEA community, the 1,250 people who come to our programs, is that they love the community.
STEVE: I want to ask about purpose. I guess I’m somebody who’s really driven by my purpose, but I take responsibility for that. I don’t know whether that’s something you can actually give people or not. I know that it’s going to continue to be important, but I also think I’m pretty well equipped to do that. I don’t know that I need a program or a place to live to do that.
CHIP: But people do need some guidance sometimes. So, purpose for so many of us, our purpose was generated by the roles we had. Whether that was being a parent, whether that was being a scout leader, or a volunteer, or if it was our work. And when it came to our work, when we retire, all of a sudden, there’s a bit of a gaping hole around purpose in our lives.
So, why is purpose important? Because it is part of the reason we get up in the morning. And there’s a beautiful quote from Socrates a long time ago that goes, “the meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away.” Sometimes purpose is actually something that you are meant to pass on, maybe even generationally.
So, I would just say, and this is a new insight I’ve had that I’m actually going to write on my Wisdom Well blog posts — which is a daily blog I have on the Modern Elder Academy website. When we think about purpose, we almost think of it as a possession. And you either have it or you don’t. It’s almost sort of binary, and it feels terrible if you don’t. You sort of feel naked or somehow not worthy of living.
I actually think the bigger thing for us to focus on as we get older is not so much the possession of our purpose, but it’s the verb, not the noun, the verb of how am I purposeful? Because, if you actually show up daily in your life with a sense of purposefulness, I bet you will find your purpose along the way.
And this is part of what we help people with at MEA. Rather than searching for the needle in the haystack to find your purpose, how do we help you take actions, operate from a verb as opposed to a noun perspective of being purposeful? Because the process of being purposeful has a tendency to take you on the breadcrumbs to your purpose.
STEVE: This is really interesting to me and you’ve sort of given me a new perspective. In my life, purpose means giving, and what you’re saying is that many people don’t necessarily see it that way. And I’m sort of scratching my head and saying, ‘Yeah, that kind of actually makes sense to me.’ So, I really liked that a lot and I do agree. I do think that a lot of people really struggle with finding purpose as they grow older. In fact, I was telling you earlier that Bill Thomas was on our Evolve Summit. And he said that one of the things that senior living has this great opportunity to do is to be meaning makers, which is a purpose-oriented way of thinking about that.
Levels of Care
STEVE: So, I’m 60 years old. I move into MEA in Santa Fe. What happens when I get to be 90 and I need services?
CHIP: Well, we’re going to be working into that. Our first location will not have a continuum of care attached to it. And that’s just because it’s also a small operation. But over time we certainly will be helping people to live in place as long as possible and feel that sense of community support.
When we talk about wellness, often we think about it being a personal thing. Illness starts with letter “I”. Wellness starts with “we”. When we think of how we live our lives to be healthier, we think about our diet, we think about how much exercise we get, how much sleep we get. It’s very personal. But the truth is social wellness, how we feel connected to others, and maybe by being connected to others, encourages us to make changes in our lifestyle and feel connected to other people.
That is a big part of our MEA program. It will be a huge part of our MEA regenerative community. So, you’re 90 years old, yes, you may need the continuum of care, but instead of just relying on people outside to come in and serve you, you may have a neighbor who’s actually providing some services for free because they know there’s going to be someone there to support them along the way. I mean, this is how frankly, aging has been for time immemorial.
CHIP: It was the people in your family and your community who supported you later in life, and that is really the core of what we’re trying to create.
Will I Fit In?
STEVE: Cool. I love that. Okay, so let me ask you my hard question that I’ve been wanting to ask you for ages but have been a little afraid to ask. I have participated in a number of your gatherings that you did every other week for four or five months. Really, really enjoyed them. But honestly, I felt a little bit of an outsider because my politics sort of lean more libertarian than liberal, and there seems to be a significant liberal leaning in these groups. If I move to Santa Fe, am I going to be an outsider who doesn’t like it there?
STEVE: I mean, is there room for politics of various flavors?
CHIP: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I’m a bit libertarian myself. In fact, I was a part of the libertarian party when I first had a chance to vote when I was 18 years old. So, no. Diversity is about not just the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation. It is about your point of view.
I would say yes, MEA does appeal to the coasts of the U. S. in a big way, which means it has a little bit more of a politically progressive kind of mindset. Man, we have all kinds of folks who come here and have really spirited debates. So yes, we don’t want to create an echo chamber. And frankly, one of the beauties of wisdom and cultivating wisdom, and we really are a midlife wisdom school, MEA is, learning how to empathize with other points of view, and to know that you don’t know at all. Someone who’s thinks they know it all is not wise.
STEVE: Absolutely. Okay. This has been a great conversation. How do people find out about what you’re doing?
CHIP: You can go to the Modern Elder Academy website — modernelderacademy.com, and you’ll see a variety of different things. Or, if you’re specifically interested in the regenerative community piece, there’s a little tile. You just click on that tile of regenerative communities, and it’ll tell you more. But if you want to learn about MEA online or our Baja workshops, or our Activists-in-Residence program, any of those kinds of things, those are all there as well.
STEVE: And are you actually taking reservations or selling?
CHIP: No. Not yet, because we won’t open till 2023. We’re just in the process of doing our community engagement and design. But if you want to learn more, the best thing to do is to go to our website and just sign up for our mailing list. That way, whenever we give people an update, you’ll be in the loop. Or you could become just a free subscriber to Wisdom Well, the daily blog. And you’ll just get an email from me every morning with a little micro-dose of wisdom.
STEVE: Yep, and the blog is terrific. I get it every day. I love it. Oftentimes you hear back from me a little bit about it, and so I really appreciate what you’re doing. And I think from the senior living industry perspective, what you’re really teaching us is there are new ways to approach this. I agree with you, there will always be a market for traditional senior living as we are doing it right now. But it’s really rare to find people who stand up and say, ‘Oh, I can hardly wait until I move in.’ And I compare that with what you’re doing in New Mexico.
Lola Rain, who’s part of my team, is already planning on moving down there. She’s a bit younger than I am, but she’s already putting her hand up and saying, “Yeah, that’s the place I want to live.’ And that’s my dream for senior living — to create communities where people in midlife and as they get older say, ‘That’s the place I want to go because that’s going to give me the best life in community, best wellness. And so, I just really appreciate your forward-thinking.
CHIP: Thank you. Thank you, Steve. Yes, it was great. Lola was just here in Baja with us and told me about your Evolve Summit. So, congratulations on that.
STEVE: Thank you very much.