DéJà Vu: A Century of Airbnb?

The values of the sharing economy are nothing new to older demographics.

This week, my MIT AgeLab colleague Luke Yoquinto and I published an article in The Washington Post about how the sharing and on-demand economy stands to change the lived experience of old age — and how it will shake things up for business along the way. Whether you're considering the transportation, housing, or care industries, a new class of tech-enabled companies is coming to change the way things are done. In many cases, the new economy is taking services that were once the domain of traditional, "senior"-oriented entities — often not-for-profits and government agencies — and replacing them with services aimed at the full age span. Now, getting meals and groceries delivered, hiring a helping hand around the house, and requesting a ride to your front door have all become things that are not just for Millennials any more but for everyone of every age.


That trend has three major effects for the older consumer: One, there's now a way to get the benefits of these services without any of the stigma that once came with them. Two, this trend will introduce competition in many areas where there was none, ideally improving the quality of available services. And three, this will cost real money.

There are no easy answers to the question of how tomorrow's older adults will afford to take part in the sharing economy. Renting and hiring products and services instead of owning them will equate to a heightened need for liquid cash on hand at all times. One way of taking illiquid assets like real estate or a car and turning them into cash is to put those assets to work in the sharing economy. More and more drivers for Uber and Lyft are over 50, and use their own cars to make money. But perhaps more interesting is how many older adults are using services like Airbnb to rent out rooms, pulling cash out of the ultimate illiquid asset: one's own home.

What's fascinating to me is that as they do so, older adults are actually hearkening back to a longstanding tradition.

During the Industrial Revolution, working-class older adults relied on a sort of family economic strategy to make ends meet, wherein parents collected the earnings of both young and adult children on a regular basis. "Raising dutiful children constituted a wife's most important economic function, since the family eventually relied on children's wages," write historians Carole Haber and Brian Gratton. "In one respect, the costs of raising children, in direct expenditure and in wives' labor, became a form of savings."

It was children who, after older adults found it difficult or impossible to secure factory work for themselves, would support the household. "While [the male household head's] wages appear to fall across the life cycle, children's wages rents, and other sources increase; as a result, household income tended to rise well into the late middle age of the household head," Haber and Gratton write.

In an important respect, that's still the case today. Although the financial role played by children in that model has been handed over to government programs, the fact remains that dutiful (adult) children — usually the eldest daughter — are the ones providing the vast bulk of care for older adults. And there's yet another way that aging today resembles that of the Industrial Revolution. Once again, we're taking on boarders.

During the Industrial Revolution, as households aged, they became more likely to collect rent as a form of income. Around the turn of the 20th century, among working-class households that were neither poor nor wealthy, nearly 30 percent of the 60-plus took on boarders. (Read more in Haber and Gratton's Old Age and the Search for Security.)

Today, many empty-nesters with room to spare are discovering that it makes sense to do the same, this time through newfangled intermediaries like Airbnb. The products and services of the new economy will cost money, but sharing companies can also provide new income sources… that are actually far from new. In many respects, when it comes to how we live throughout the full lifespan, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

MIT AgeLab’s Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article

Photo: Shutterstock/sdecoret

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.