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AARP Chief: How Living to 100 Changes Our Ideas About Aging

Aug 25, 2019

Jo Ann Jenkins is the CEO of AARP, the world's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization. AARP is focused on helping people "improve their quality of life" as they age; it has more than 38 million members.

Jenkins joined AARP in 2010 and became CEO in 2014. Previously she was chief operating officer at the Library of Congress, one of her many roles in public service. She is the author of "Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age," a book about changing society's views on aging. She is the first woman to be named CEO of AARP on a permanent basis.

Answers are edited for length and clarity.

Q: AARP focuses on people over 50, what a massive slice of the population.

A: It is a huge population, over 110 million people over the age of 50 in the U.S. alone.

We call this the longevity economy, meaning that people over the age of 50 are actually contributing more than $7.6 trillion dollars in annual economic activity. In fact, if this cohort were a country — based on its economic value — it would be number three behind the US and China. People over the age of 50 do spend an awful lot and contribute a lot to the economy: 51 cents of every dollar spent by someone in the US is spent by the person over the age of 50.

Q: And that money, what are they spending it on?

A: They usually are spending it on the same kind of things as millennials: home, entertainment and health care. I would put those three things at the top of their list.

Q: Something you talk about in your book is challenging outdated beliefs about retirement and aging. What do you see as some of the most common misconceptions?

A: A generation ago, middle age was 40. Certainly middle age has moved up to the 50s and 60s. Think about it — a 10-year-old child today has a 50% chance of living to be 104.

So if you look at the 100 year lifespan, how do we start changing that perception of aging? How do we think about life if in fact 50% of us may soon be living to be 100? How do we rethink adolescence? How do we rethink work? Do we really have to stay in one place for 30 years like our parents did? Or are we going to have three and four totally different careers over the course of a lifetime?

So the book is about shattering those outdated beliefs and stereotypes — even the idea that everybody wants to retire at 62.

I think what we're seeing is that in fact, close to 40 percent of our members say they want to continue working past traditional retirement age — either because they want to or because they need to. And we know that people who continue to work or even volunteer can live longer than people who don't.

So all those misperceptions of what people want when they retire or what they want to do in their older life I think is being totally torn apart by the idea that people are going to live longer, healthier — and hopefully in better financial shape — than they had in the past.

Q: Speaking of financial shape, retirement savings — or the lack of — is a huge concern. What do you see as a priority to help ensure that everyone doesn't spend their old age in poverty?

A: Well that's exactly why we hope that people are saving their own money, that hopefully they have a pension or 401(k) at their place of work and that they're not solely dependent on Social Security because we think you have to have all three of those.

And right now we are in the middle of this huge fight to bring down the cost of prescription drugs. We know the older you get, the more prescription drugs you take. And the fact is that some people are spending 30%, 40% of their retirement income on the cost of prescription drugs that they depend on. It's one of those things that really cuts back on their financial security.

Also, when Social Security was put in place, people were retiring earlier and living shorter lives. It's all the more reason we need to address these issues of Social Security solvency and also adequacy so that it's here for not just our generation but generations to come.

Q: What drew you to this job? You've got plenty of background in D.C. but what drew you to this niche?

A: I've always worked in jobs that are focused on giving back and helping others, whether it's in government service or in the private sector. And AARP had asked me if I would come to head up their charitable arm, which focuses on low income and vulnerable individuals. After two years I was asked to come to AARP the parent to be the chief operating officer and then 18 months later to be the CEO.

So when I came to AARP, my intention was to be running the foundation for a long, long time. But you know I'm here in the CEO position and I love the work that AARP is doing. And I tell the staff all the time that I get excited to come to work every day knowing the impact we can have. Not many people get to work in a job that they love and so I find myself fortunate to be in this position.

My message is really how do we start looking at aging in a positive way? For many of us it's our own perception of aging that is the bigger problem than societal reflection of it.

I know for me, I'm living at 61 very different than my parents lived when they were 61. And we are all still in the workplace and we're all being very productive and I think that what's important is that this age cohort is living very differently and contributing to society and is not just being a burden in terms of their cost, but they really are the backbone of the economic activity in the U.S.

Making aging easier in the 21st century

Aug 14, 2019

Legacy organizations are borrowing tech-industry strategies to further their mission—and creating inspiring workplaces in the process.

Nigel Smith has logged hours for some of the world’s most prestigious companies, from top-10 banks to management consulting firms. But nothing compares to his current job.

As director of AARP’s startup incubator Hatchery Ventures, Smith is at the center of the company’s latest efforts to improve the lives of Americans over 50—which, today, means leveraging technology. So Smith and his colleagues scour the global marketplace for impressive organizations that can help shape their AI, virtual-reality and robotics products. They’re also building digital solutions for some of the most intractable challenges facing older Americans now and into the future.

“What’s been unfolding [over] the last year is probably one of the most powerful innovation stories I’ve ever seen,” Smith said.

Smith’s deep enthusiasm is shared by his teammates at AARP. And it has a lot to do with creative teams within the organization—including product development hub Innovation Labs and AARPx, a department focused on consumer experience—that are adapting their ethos for a new generation. That translates to a workplace that makes employees passionate about their ability to change with the times and disrupt the status quo.

Helping people choose how they live as they age, then and now

AARP was founded in 1958 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus her goal was to reframe aging in a more positive light and give retired Americans a collective voice around issues like affordable health care and pension reform. That vision is still playing out today in AARP offices nationwide, including the ones in Washington, D.C., where Smith and his colleagues at the Hatchery are located.

The Hatchery hosts projects developed by AARP and its partners. And just as Andrus knew precisely what retirees were up against in the 1950s, Smith understands the challenges facing older adults today, from cardiovascular disease to dementia, social isolation and insufficient retirement savings. These are challenges that “we need solutions for, desperately,” Smith said.

Innovation Labs has heeded that call by launching a virtual-reality platform aimed at making life easier for folks over 50 called Alcove, which facilitates intergenerational connection. To build Alco ve, they collaborated with Hatchery Ventures portfolio company Rendever, which has a virtual reality platform that provides cognitive stimulation and socialization to seniors. Innovation Labs’ workspace is even designed for collaboration and creativity, with an open layout and writable walls that encourage brainstorming.

Giving consumers a voice

AARPx, a department within the organization, aims to ensure that people’s interactions with AARP are easy, enjoyable and useful for their specific needs. To get a feel for what people want, the team taps into social media and listens to AARP’s call center, where members can get in touch with experts. Employees also volunteer throughout D.C. for a wide variety of organizations, including one that that provides legal counsel to elderly people at risk of losing their homes.

“That allows us to really understand what it’s like to be in their shoes,” said Michelle Musgrove, senior vice president of AARPx.

Through her research, Musgrove learned that older adults depend on AARP for information about life transitions, but they nonetheless want to make their own decisions. This led to the creation of Frontline Feedback, an app that lets employees and volunteers gather questions and comments from the public on the spot, whether pertaining to healthcare, neighborhood safety or caregiving, so AARP can provide more targeted information and solutions.

“Figuring out Medicare is not easy. Caring for somebody who is in decline when you have a teenager at home is not easy,” Musgrove said.

For this vulnerable population, AARP offers a powerful combination of community and information that can be life-altering. That could include anything from getting the right prescription drug for a particular condition to finding a local ride-share to doctor appointments and the grocery store.

This window into the lives of older Americans has profoundly affected Musgrove’s outlook.

“Around here, there’s no shortage of inspirational stories of people who are what would be considered ‘old’ doing amazing things,” she said—including a 92-year-old marathoner who didn’t take up running until her late 70s. “It’s sincerely changed my perception on life. I’m excited about getting older.”

A culture of disruption that puts older adults first

Before founding AARP, Dr. Andrus empowered older Americans by creating the first group health insurance program just for them—a decade ahead of Medicare. Her boundary-pushing spirit still thrives across all levels of AARP, which is now led by CEO Jo Ann Jenkins; about 10 percent of staffers are allotted extra time and resources to pursue innovation, AARP has become a regular at tech trade shows and it invests tens of millions of dollars in “longevity economy” trailblazers like the Dementia Discovery Fund, an effort to find non-traditional solutions for the disease.

That try-anything atmosphere was made clear to director of audience marketing Maura White at AARP’s 60th anniversary event last year. There, White suggested launching state-specific online communities to ramp up consumer engagement, to which an AARP executive responded by gathering state management for an impromptu discussion. As a result, four states may test the idea this fall.

Feeling encouraged to share her ideas, and being able to bring them to fruition, is part of what White loves about working at AARP. She receives the same support from her team on Raise Your Voice, a voice app for smart speakers and phones that keeps users abreast of legislative issues like Social Security changes and prescription drug prices. The app even connects users directly to their senator or representative, so that they can advocate for themselves.

The dedication and drive of the employees powering these teams keeps them operating at tip-top shape. Whether it’s making sure people know when and where to vote or working through the weekend to provide customers with answers, “my staff, they go to the mat,” White said.

It all speaks to the fact that AARP is pulling off something that remains a challenge even for some of the world’s most impressive businesses: “How to infuse disruption within their organizations,” said Smith. “And it feels like within AARP, we are figuring it out.”

Learn more about careers at AARP

AARP Receives 2019 Top Workplaces Award From Washington Post

Jun 21, 2019

WASHINGTONJune 21, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- AARP has been named one of The Washington Post's 2019 Top Workplaces in the Washington, D.C. area. AARP is a 2019 award winner in the top 30 large employers category, rising to #11 from #14 last year. Selection is based solely on employee feedback gathered through an anonymous third-party survey administered by research partner Energage, LLC, which measured several aspects of workplace culture, including alignment, execution, and connection.

"The commitment that AARP employees have to the work they do on behalf of people 50-plus and their families shines through every day," said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. "Because all of us at AARP believe so strongly in the organization's social mission, we've sought to make AARP an inspiring place to work and one where collaboration, innovation and inclusiveness are at the heart of everything we do. To learn that AARP is once again rated as a Top Workplace is a great honor." 

"Now in its sixth year, The Post's Top Workplaces list continues to reflect companies in the region that cultivate a connection with their workforce," said Washington Post Top Workplaces editor Dion Haynes. "It's clear from the survey that these organizations share a commitment to providing support and an environment that makes employees feel valued and respected."

AARP is committed to attracting, inspiring and retaining its diverse, skilled and motivated workforce. AARP's benefits package is designed in alignment with its social impact agenda focused on financial resilience, health security, including caregiving, and personal fulfillment for people age 50-plus and their families. AARP employees are empowered to be everyday innovators in aging.

For more about The Washington Post's Top Workplaces and to see the full list of this year's honorees, visit

About AARP

AARP is the nation's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering people 50 and older to choose how they live as they age. With a nationwide presence and nearly 38 million members, AARP strengthens communities and advocates for what matters most to families: health security, financial stability and personal fulfillment. AARP also produces the nation's largest circulation publications: AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. To learn more, visit or follow @AARP and @AARPadvocates on social media.

About The Washington Post

The Washington Post is an award-winning news leader whose mission is to connect, inform, and enlighten local, national and global readers with trustworthy reporting, in-depth analysis and engaging opinions. It combines world-class journalism with the latest technology and tools so readers can interact with The Post anytime, anywhere.

About Energage, LLC

Headquartered in Exton, Pa.Energage (formerly known as WorkplaceDynamics) is a leading provider of technology-based employee engagement tools that help leaders to unlock potential, inspire performance, and achieve amazing results within their organizations. The research partner behind the Top Workplaces program, Energage has surveyed more than 47,000 organizations representing well over 16 million employees in the United States.

Top Workplaces 2019

Jun 21, 2019 Meet the 152 companies in the D.C. area with the highest ratings from their employees. Read about our methodology.Read more about the 2018 Top Workplaces.

Founded: 1958

Sector: Advocacy

Headquarters: D.C.

Local Employees: 1,424

Total employees: 2,306

Locations in D.C. area: 1

This powerful advocacy and lobbying organization represents the interests of the nation's elderly and aging population, but its mission is much broader than that. Life at AARP is built around the organization's purpose of "empowering people to choose how they live as they age," as one manager put it. A decade ago, it officially changed its name from the American Association of Retired Persons to simply AARP because surveys showed that about half of its members were still working. It is one of a diminishing pool of organizations in the United States that still offers pensions to new employees, something that is meant to underscore its commitment to offering solid retirement benefits. Employees seem to be motivated first and foremost by the benefits AARP provides to its members. "Every time I help a person reach their potential or find a living wage job with benefits I feel we have done our job," one employee wrote in a survey.

Best Places to Work in IT 2019

Jun 17, 2019

Computerworld included AARP’s on its annual list of the 100 Best Places to Work in IT for the fourth consecutive year. This year AARP ranked #2 among midsize organizations, up from sixth place last year.

AARP also ranked—across all 100 companies on the list—#2 for Benefits, #3 for Diversity, and #6 for training.

AARP Urges Congress to Strengthen Age Discrimination Laws

May 21, 2019

Congress should pass a bill that would improve protections for older adults in the workplace, an AARP official testified at a hearing Tuesday on the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA). The measure would reverse a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for people to win litigation after facing discrimination because of their age.

"Age discrimination in the workplace remains disturbingly pervasive,” said Laurie McCann, senior attorney for AARP Foundation, at the House Committee on Education and Labor hearing. “Three in five older workers report that they have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job. Discrimination is discrimination, and POWADA would make Congress’ intent clear that no amount of unlawful discrimination in the workplace is acceptable. Congress should pass POWADA as soon as possible."

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers age 40 and older from being forced out of jobs or denied work opportunities because of their age. But in a 2009 ruling (Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc.), the U.S. Supreme Court said older workers have to prove that their age was a decisive factor in the employer's decision to discipline or fire them, a much higher standard than had been required since the ADEA was enacted in 1967. Previously, it was sufficient to prove age was one of a number factors that played into such a decision. POWADA would amend the ADEA to restore the previous standards. Bipartisan groups of legislators in the House of Representatives and Senate introduced identical POWADA bills in February.

The proposed legislation clearly states that victims of age discrimination do not have to demonstrate that age was a deciding factor for the employer's action in order to prove their case.

Jack Gross, the plaintiff who lost that age discrimination case in 2009, attended the hearing Tuesday. In a separate conversation recorded for an episode of AARP's Take on Today podcast, Gross, who is now 70 and retired, said he is upset that a Supreme Court ruling that is referred to by his name is being used to hurt other older workers.

"This is a little bit about ego for me now,” Gross said. “There are a lot of people who had probably pretty good [age discrimination] cases who would have had their day in court, but they go to an attorney and their attorney says, ‘Well, after the decision in the Gross case, you know, these are so tough to prove we don't want to take anything on a contingency basis like this anymore.’ So, some of them just don't get off the ground, and when they do get there, the Gross v. FBL decision is cited time after time for denying anybody a reasonable chance of winning because the standard of proof has become almost insurmountable."

POWADA is sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

AARP Donating Fitness Parks for All Ages

May 13, 2019

AARP is commemorating its 60th anniversary with the construction of fitness parks in local communities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. AARP partnered with an innovative nonprofit, FitLot,™ and worked with the local Parks and Recreation department to open its first fitness park in St. Petersburg, Florida on April 24. AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, Mayor Rick Kriseman, and FitLot Co-Founder and Executive Director Adam Mejerson were on hand to welcome community members to the new park and try out the exercise equipment.

Over the next three years, 52 more fitness parks will open with more than a dozen planned for 2019. Check the Media Relations blog for details on upcoming and recent openings.

Each fitness park will be located in or near an outdoor park and will feature stationary equipment, such as an elliptical and stepper, that can be adapted to meet a wide range of fitness levels and abilities. The parks include ample floor space for group exercises and users can attach resistance bands to the upright beams of the structure at ankle, waist and shoulder height for more varied routines.

Public spaces are essential to a vibrant community. It’s no surprise that a recent AARP survey found that safe parks are among the top three community features people want in their neighborhoods. Some of the benefits outlined in AARP’s Creating Parks and Public Spaces for People of All Ages: A Step-by-Step Guide, include:

Improved physical and mental health.

Enhanced community connections.

Added economic value and cost saving benefits.

Cities where AARP is donating fitness parks will host a community-opening event or bring volunteers together for a community build day.

“These thinkers, speakers, and doers make bold choices and take big risks—and move others to do the same.”

Apr 21, 2019

About 24% of the U.S. workforce is 55 or above—and older workers face a disproportionate risk of being laid off. This spring, Jenkins rallied bipartisan support behind a long-­dormant bill that would strengthen federal age discrimination laws. She’s also a dogged critic of prescription drug costs—a burden to which older workers and retirees alike are keenly vulnerable.

Why Freelance Work Appeals to Many Older People

Mar 15, 2019

Older Americans are becoming a larger share of the pool of people employers turn to when it comes to finding on-call help for positions from management consulting to substitute teaching, according to a new report.

Between 2005 and 2017, the percentage of people age 55 and older working as independent contractors, freelancers and other types of on-call workers grew significantly, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonpartisan labor-related think tank that examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The share of these workers who were ages 55 to 64 rose from 18.8 percent in 2005 to 22.9 percent in 2017. For those ages 65 and older, the share climbed from 8.5 percent to 14.1 percent. 

In total, the share of 55-and-older workers accounted for 37 percent of all independent contractors in 2017, up nearly 10 percentage points since 2005. 

“We see a huge growth in work and employment by older Americans as the life expectancy increases and people are able to continue working,” says Eileen Appelbaum, a research associate at the EPI and coauthor of the report. “People are putting off retiring. People are living longer, and because they are living longer, many who have jobs that are not physically demanding, especially, are putting off retiring.”

Ready for your next job? AARP Resume Advisor can help

For some older people, independent contracting and on-call positions are attractive ways to ease into retirement or earn income after they have left the full-time workforce. The contracting option can offer an appealing combination of flexibility and extra money, as long as the worker can get health care coverage or save for retirement in other ways.

“I do it because I like it,” Jim Strang, 73, says of his job as a substitute teacher, the position that attracts the highest number of on-call workers between the ages of 55-64, according to the EPI report. “I really genuinely like it. I like the teachers; I like the kids; I like the administrators. It’s fun.”

Strang, who lives in Avon, Ohio, near Cleveland, started substitute teaching after he retired early from his career as a newspaper journalist. Teaching was new to him, but he was armed with his enthusiasm, his imposing build (6 feet 3 inches, 280 pounds) and “a beard to rival that of Dumbledore,” he says, referring to the wizard from the Harry Potter books.

“Many weeks I’ll work all five days, but if I don’t want to work, I don’t have to,” Strang says. He usually takes off at least one day a week to spend time with his wife, Peggy (they’ve been married for 45 years), and to run errands to the pharmacy and other places.

The overall pool of those doing on-call work (independent contractors, day laborers, people who work for temporary-help agencies, and other similar situations) accounted for 10.1 percent of the nation’s workforce in 2017, the EPI report reveals. That’s a small drop from 10.9 percent in 2005, which makes the growth of this kind of work among older Americans all the more remarkable. Older workers were already more likely than those in any other age group to do these types of jobs in 2005, and now they are even more likely to, according to the BLS data analyzed by the think tank. 

“They’re retiring from the office,” says Sharon Emek, president and CEO of Work at Home Vintage Experts, a company that helps experienced workers find contract positions. “That’s really the key here. They’ve paid their dues. They now want to have the flexibility. They want to be able to choose the hours.”

The EPI report concludes by noting the importance of access to health care coverage for these older workers, whether it’s through Medicare, Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act.

“The issue with being a contract worker is, if they don’t have health insurance, it’s a problem,” Emek says. “A lot of people are tied to a job that they don’t want to be tied to because they need health insurance. They’re stuck on the job until they can get Medicare.”

Staying healthy might be the key to enabling these workers to stay on the job.

“We’re not living older longer; we’re living younger longer,” Emek says. “And people are going to need to continue to work, but in a way that makes their life more meaningful for them.”