is the word we use at Twin Oaks to describe the consistently large percentage of the population that leaves each year and is replaced by a similar number of people.

As a community, we’ve been at our population capacity of 92 members for an almost unbroken stretch of three years.  However, in a given year an average of 20 people leave, and are replaced by new members (or, more rarely, previous members returning).  While some years the turnover percentage is slightly lower or higher, overall the average remains consistent.

This situation is fairly consistent in every intentional community I’ve visited.   Twin Oaks’ current situation of being at capacity for so long is actually fairly rare; in the past there have been a number of open spaces for people who want to join, and Pop Cap was more of a theoretical possibility, or perhaps the goal to aim for.

While places like Twin Oaks can truthfully say that they have a population of around 100 in their descriptions, that doesn’t really give the complete picture.  Most of the population at any point won’t be living there in just five years.  The current median membership length of Twin Oaks is around three and a half years (which remains fairly consistent over time).  Another way of phrasing this would be to say that every three and a half years, half of the population will have left and be replaced by different people.

This situation created several consistent cultural factors that need to be continuously addressed:

  • Continuous retraining of simple tasks.  This is built into the systems of Twin Oaks through orientations for visitors and new members about many basic things.  Major work areas always need to take into account that some people will leave the community and need to be replaced by new people.  Even if the tasks are relatively simple, unskilled work, such as washing dishes, cleaning a barn, or weeding the garden, the loss is efficiency is clearly noticeable.  It often seems like many areas are in a state of constant training of new people.
  • Loss of technical knowledge.  While it’s possible for unskilled tasks to be explained, some of the more complex tasks simply cannot.  If the people who have the knowledge to fix vehicles leave, that’s potentially something that one could teach one’s self, but over a long period of time.  Even more extreme is the knowledge for maintaining things like Twin Oaks’ computer network and phone system, which is surprisingly more complex than any other place I’ve worked.  Even if there are people willing to learn to run areas like this, it may simply not be possible to pass on the technical knowledge necessary in a reasonable amount of time, as most people who have worked in an area like computer networks have at least some years of formal schooling as a background.  Often, communities just have to hope that they will get a new member soon with these skills, hire other people from dominant culture (usually at a high cost), or decide to not have these services (or let them slowly deteriorate).
  • Continuous cultural assimilation.  Like the retraining of simple tasks, this is possible to overcome, but it must be ongoing and fairly comprehensive.  When and where is it not appropriate to ask people questions about work?  What are the norms about ten people sharing the same bathroom in a house?  There’s a huge amount little things like these that make up everyone’s everyday existence, and if many of them change quickly, this can be very disorienting and frustrating.
  • Ongoing reintroduction of cultural patterns of dominant culture.  If people are not effectively assimilated into a community’s culture, they will do what most humans do, and keep behaving the way that has worked for them in the past.    For the most part, this isn’t a huge problem, as most people who end up moving to a place like Twin Oaks do so because they are attracted to the core ideals of the community, such as non-violence.  However, there’s often a significant slide towards many dominant culture values over time if the values of the community are not reenforced.  This is especially true for issues beyond the core values, or ones that are maybe at the limits or borders of the core values.
  • Introduction of new technology.  When I moved to Twin Oaks in 2007, I was one of the few people to have a personal computer, let alone a laptop.  Now, almost everyone who moves to the community has some sort of internet capable device.  The introduction of new technology isn’t inherently a problem, but there are many types that will affect the social structure.  Twin Oaks has had a ban on televisions for the purpose of watching broadcast television since the inception of the community.  Yet with a personal computer and internet connection in one’s room, one can essentially have the same thing at this point.  In effect, the decision to not have people watching television shows by themselves in their rooms has been undone, not because of an intentional community discussion and decision, but because of the lack of discussion and decisions on new forms of technology.
  • Loss of close friends.  One can think of a cluster of people who join the community within a six month period as a mini-generation.  Often, but not always, this will be the primary source of one’s close friends in the first year or so, mostly because those people often end up starting to work in the same areas, and go through similar new member experiences at about the same time.  After only a few years of membership, these groups, which can be around a dozen people, can be down to less than half that amount.  Those who are members for more than five years are lucky if one person from their group is still around.  Even those who have been around for many years can decide to leave.  Some of the very long-term members have a fairly detached relationship with most other members, and there are some who don’t even get to know the names of the newest members until they have been around for half a year.  This is probably one of the saddest realities of living in a small community.

Turnover is a major source of a large number of issues communities continuously face.


~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02011.09.06.

One Response to “Turnover”

  1. […] same entity over a period of time, even if a large number of the individuals who make up that group have changed.  For example, at Twin Oaks it is very easy for someone who was a member of the community 20 years […]

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