A New Luxury Retreat Caters to Elderly Workers in Tech (Ages 30 and Up)

By Nellie Bowles

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Modern Elder Academy is aimed at workers in the digital economy — those who feel like software is speeding up while they are slowing down, no matter how old they really are.CreditCreditJason Henry for The New York Times

EL PESCADERO, Mexico — At a luxury resort in Baja California Sur, everyone was recovering from a long day sharing how hard it felt to be getting older.

Some of the participants walked pensively along the Pacific Coast at sunset. Others read from the resort bookshelf, choosing from sections labeled: “What can death teach me about life?” and “What are the unexpected pleasures of aging?”

The next day, the group would place stickers with ageist slurs all over their chests, arms and faces, and then hurl the stickers into a fire. Later, there would be healing sessions focused on intergenerational collaboration and accepting mortality.

That some of those on retreat were in their 30s and 40s did not strike them as odd.

The resort, called Modern Elder Academy and located in El Pescadero, Mexico, opened in November. Guests don’t check in and out as at a traditional retreat; they submit “applications” for one-week programs and, if accepted, pay “tuition” of $5,000 to secure a room and three locally sourced meals a day.

Modern Elder was started by a hotelier turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and it is aimed at workers in the digital economy — those who feel like software is speeding up while they are slowing down, no matter how old they really are. Tech is a place where investors are wary of funding any entrepreneur born before Operation Desert Storm, where Intel is under investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for age discrimination, where giants like Google and IBM regularly face the specter of class-action lawsuits from workers north of 40.

In and around San Francisco, the conventional wisdom is that tech jobs require a limber, associative mind and an appetite for risk — both of which lessen with age. As Silicon Valley work culture becomes American work culture, these attitudes are spreading to all industries. More workers are finding themselves in the curious position of presenting as old while still being — technically, actuarially — quite young. And Modern Elder sees a business opportunity in selling them coping workshops, salt-air yoga and access to a shaman.

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When he was 52, Chip Conley’s young colleagues at Airbnb started referring to him as “the elder.”
He resigned himself to the concept, and opened the resort last year.
CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Come to Baja, the sales pitch goes. It’s hard getting old, especially when the elder years start at 30.

Chip Conley was surprised when he first realized his colleagues saw him as old. It was 2013, and he was 52. A longtime hotelier — he had founded the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain in 1987, and had a string of iconic properties to his name — he had taken a job at Airbnb, the San Francisco start-up fast upending the hospitality industry.

His younger co-workers, with their zippy metabolisms and surplus collagen, started referring to him as “the elder.” Mr. Conley — who in his 20s started San Francisco’s best party motel and is a longtime Burning Man and local night-life fixture — was a little confused but resigned himself to the idea.

“We are all elders in the making,” Mr. Conley said. “If you’re 40 years old and surrounded by 25-year-olds, you’re an elder.”

What was hardest, though, was the loneliness. He was the oldest person he would see at work for days. “It can feel strange,” he said.

As Airbnb grew, and his stock vested, Mr. Conley decided to start a new hotel with a simple premise: Embrace the term “elder.”

The resort, in Baja California Sur, is built around a grand Mexican hacienda.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

He found a plot of land about 40 miles north of Cabo San Lucas and set to work. He remodeled a house — a grand Mexican hacienda with big wooden doors, a fountain and a courtyard. There are 18 rooms, several arranged around a pool, and the kitchen, living room and a long outdoor wooden table are communal. It all sits on a bluff overlooking the beach.

As Mr. Conley began bringing friends south to test the experience, he imagined that his resort’s core demographic would be 45 to 60. But after announcing a public opening last fall, he was surprised to field interest from people in their 30s. In the nine Modern Elder sessions he’s hosted to date, the oldest participant was 74, the youngest was 30, and the average has been 52.

“People feel irrelevant younger, especially in places like Silicon Valley,” Mr. Conley said. “But they’re going to live longer, so there’s excitement and bewilderment. And everyone is wondering, ‘What do we do now?’”

In November, a group of 16 people, ages 37 to 67, traveled to El Pescadero to be the first Modern Elder class. I tagged along.

In a van heading down an unpaved road to the facility, Cheryl Crippen, a 50-year-old clinical psychology professor, was worried. “I said before coming down, ‘I don’t do woo-woo,’ and my mom was like, ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid and get in a Jim Jones situation,’” Ms. Crippen said. “But I wanted a week to think. I’ve got 40 years left. What’s next? There’s always got to be something next, right?”

She told her students she was going on a business trip.

Mr. Conley, who is lean and sinewy, with a shaved head and bright blue eyes, greeted everyone at the doors in a tank top and flip-flops. The shaman blessing ceremony would be Tuesday morning, he said, and there was an option for private sessions that he highly recommended. (These involved sitting on a cliff and screaming.) Ms. Crippen looked nervous but put her bags away.

“The social narrative is basically, midlife is a crisis and after a crisis you have decrepitude,” Mr. Conley said. “But you actually are much happier in your 60s and 70s, so why aren’t we preparing for that?”CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

That evening, the group had beer and white wine on the veranda. Attendants lit bug candles for the mosquitoes, and I asked a few of the guests why they had come.

“I’m approaching 50 at a software company,” said Tracy Stevens, 48.

“All my colleagues are 30, and I’m almost 40,” said Margareet Paauwe. “Marketing used to be about feeling. Now it’s all data and I have to speed up with the data. So I do feel older.”

Those in their mid-30s today came of age on the cusp of the digital revolution. Many older Millennials didn’t have internet at home until high school, didn’t join social networking sites until college, and didn’t get an iPhone until they had already begun their careers. The arrival of Generation Z into the workplace is showing Millennials what a true digital native looks like.

Their anxieties are well founded. In Silicon Valley, the hiring rate seems to slow for workers once they hit 34, according to a 2017 study by Visier, a human-resources analytics provider. The median age of a worker at Facebook, LinkedIn and SpaceX is 29, according to a recent analysis by the workplace transparency site PayScale.

At Modern Elder, several people introduced themselves by rounding up their ages — one woman said she was “soon to be 39,” another was “almost 42,” and a third was “pretty soon looking at 50.” Some said they chose to come south because they thought vacationing would be more serene without 20-somethings in the mix.

“I wasn’t having to think, ‘Oh, this is going to be a fashion show every day,’” said Libby Wann, 38. “It’s relaxing to know I’ll be with a group of older folks. There’s less to prove.”

Guests don’t check in and out as at a traditional retreat; they submit “applications” for one-week programs and, if accepted, pay “tuition” of $5,000.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Dinner was meaty pasta: Modern Elder is not a health/detox retreat. Pretty soon, a majority of the group was yawning.

“For those thinking it’s 11 — I’m tired! — actually, it’s just after 8 o’clock,” Mr. Conley said. He wanted them to know that here, early bedtimes were cool. “Baja midnight is at 9 p.m.”

On the second day of the retreat, at 7 a.m., everyone gathered in the living room, where the tables were covered in white lilies.

“We as a society do a really good job helping people through transitional times: quinceañera, graduation, wedding, baby shower,” Mr. Conley began. “But between baby shower and funeral? Nada. What we’re going to do now is create a midlife atrium.”

We took turns giving emotional check-ins. Mr. Conley shared a recent cancer diagnosis. Ms. Crippen talked about a cat sanctuary she runs at her home. Others talked about divorces. A few joked about being unsure if they’re in menopause.

Each elder got a binder with the week’s curriculum. Thursday, there would be a session on Millennials. This was illustrated with a young man with groomed facial hair holding a disposable coffee cup.

“I feel like I’m just not getting it,” said Modern Elder’s Jeff Hamaoui. “I watch YouTube stars and all these things, and intellectually I get it, but emotionally I just can’t connect.”CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

One handout was a rainbow chart showing a life span. It began at “growth mind-set” (0-15 years old), illustrated by an egg. It went to “embodied elder” (65-85), illustrated by a butterfly. After that was just a flower — the elderflower.

“The flower of a human,” Mr. Conley called it. He added that elderflower juice is quite healthy.

Some of the attendees said their friends had been confused by the word. “People interpret ‘elder’ as you’re old, you’re senior,” said Lorenzo Jones, 55, an executive coach. “‘Time to go out to pasture and let us run things.’ But ‘elder’ in this context has a whole different meaning. To me, it means being relevant.”

Many of the attendees said they felt shocked that age had crept up on them. “I’ve always been the youngest, and I’m kind of surprised that I’m actually getting older,” said Ms. Wann, 38, a little later, as she walked through the contemplation garden. “Now people are coming to me for advice, and I’m seeing myself as someone whose lived experience is worth passing on.”

Mr. Conley had established an open kitchen, and we were encouraged to eat any snacks we liked (almonds, prunes, dates) and also to do our own dishes.

He also issued us Modern Elder flip-flops. The bottom of one read “GROW,” and the other “WHOLE.” People put them on and headed to the beach.

Ms. Stevens observed that talking about aging was enlivening. “It’s not making me think about death at all,” she said. “It’s making me think about the life I have left.”

Saul Kuperstein, a shaman, performs a sunrise ceremony overlooking the Pacific Ocean.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

After beach meditation (“Our bodies are made of water and minerals and we are sitting here with water and minerals,” said the guide), the group wandered the shore collecting sticks. They dug them into sand at the high-tide line, making a stick wall. We watched them fall all week as the water rose up, picking off sticks a few at a time and dragging them out to sea.

Mr. Conley said this was one of the most important symbols.

The next morning, there was another circle with more sharing. The main activity that day, Mr. Conley said, would be “a purge with the fire.”

When the time came, Mr. Conley and his assistants filled a table with stickers that had ageist anxieties scrawled on them. The elders were told to pick any they felt applied to them and affix them to their chests.

Ms. Stevens put on “Millennials rule the world” and “I wish I was a digital native.” Jeff Hamaoui, 47, who ran a supply-chain consultancy before joining Modern Elder as its director of education, wrote his own: “I am not practical or handy.”

Others covered their chests and arms with stickers. “I fear being an old lady or man on the streets.” “I’m out of time to try something new.” “I feel increasingly invisible.”

The group members wandered silently, looking at each other and reading the notes. One by one, they peeled the messages off and burned them in a fire pit on the veranda.

As the week progressed, there was a growing sense of empowerment and camaraderie — almost rebellion. Mr. Conley talked about reclaiming the term elder like the gay community has reclaimed queer.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Lunch was lentil soup, beer and cheese.

At 5:30, the schedule called for restorative yoga, and as a small panic spread it became clear this was not a cohort accustomed to retreat culture.

“For those frightened of yoga,” Mr. Conley said, “this is not yoga, this is lying down.”

The instructor, Teddi Dean, showed up. He had long, shaggy blond hair. “Recognize that you’re in a body, recognize the weight of a body,” he told the group as the sun set.

Mr. Conley had packed the days with activities, circle after circle. To speak, the members passed a long and knotty talking stick with deep holes all the way though, like Swiss cheese. Soon, many in the group were seeing their boundaries fall. Some cried. Others said they were sharing things for the first time. One person disclosed terminal cancer that few at home knew about.

Another circle started, this one about “liminality.” Mr. Hamaoui said, “I feel like I’m just not getting it. I watch YouTube stars and all these things, and intellectually I get it, but emotionally I just can’t connect.”

Snaps of agreement came from around the circle. No one else connected with the YouTube stars either, and it was O.K. There was a growing sense of empowerment and camaraderie — almost rebellion. Mr. Conley talked about reclaiming the term elder like the gay community has reclaimed queer.

“The social narrative is basically, midlife is a crisis and after a crisis you have decrepitude,” Mr. Conley said. “But you actually are much happier in your 60s and 70s, so why aren’t we preparing for that?”

Later in the week, Caroline Czirr, 49, a brand manager in Colorado, got the talking stick. “This feels good,” said Ms. Czirr. “It feels good. I’m turning 50 next month, and I was just going to have dinner with friends.”

Her voice rose. “But now I want cake,” she said. “I want champagne. And I want to see a D.J., and I want to make out with a guy at a bar.”

Mr. Conley’s expansion plans include building a Modern Elder retirement community near El Pescadero. Mr. Hamaoui, who is leading that effort, said the new facility would accommodate both short and permanent stays. He and Mr. Conley are imagining it as an “intergenerational community,” he said one evening, leaning back on the Modern Elder veranda. He expects Millennials will want to join.