With the oldest 2.5 million baby boomers turning 70 this year, it’s clear that the generation that sang along as the Who belted out “Hope I die before I get old” … well, didn’t.
Not dying is a good thing, but it’s still hard to accept the getting old part. This generation has famously sought to retain its youthful identity, keeping the “baby” moniker as wrinkles deepen, stretching the boundaries of “middle aged” to unprecedented widths, refusing to identify as “seniors” even if it means waiving a discount.
Appealing to those young-at-heart folks is one of the challenges that face AARP. The 38-million-member organization, one of the country’s most powerful lobbying groups, represents Americans over 50, from boomers to their parents and beyond — and, on the young end, the first wave of Generation Xers.
That means addressing the interests of people in assisted living and people who work full time, people who need care and the people able to provide it, people with mobility problems and people who run marathons.
“We represent everyone from the youngest 50-year-old to the oldest members in the state, and we’re not changing that,” said Will Phillips, director of 657,000-member AARP Minnesota.
But the issue is how to persuade boomers to take another look at — and consider volunteering for — an organization they probably grew up thinking of as the American Association of Retired Persons (it now just uses the acronym, recognizing that many of its members actually aren’t retired).
“Renting out a hotel ballroom and doing a PowerPoint presentation — that doesn’t work,” Phillips said.
What works better is free beer, the state organization has found. Last fall AARP Minnesota partnered with Second Harvest Heartland to host a well-attended series of gatherings at Twin Cities craft breweries. Participants received a beer and tour in exchange for a nonperishable food donation.
Bike riding and movies are also effective boomer bait. AARP Minnesota was a gold sponsor of last year’s St. Paul Classic Bike Tour in September. And it held a free screening of “Field of Dreams” at St. Paul’s CHS Field in August, attracting about 2,000 people, Phillips said.
“We see all different age groups at our events,” Phillips said, which in turn lets people on the younger end of old — and even the outright young — see AARP as something that they might relate to after all.
“If people see AARP as relevant to their lives, then more people will join, more people will volunteer and we’ll be more effective advocates for the 50-plus population in the state,” said Phillips, who at 41 has a ways to go before reaching that landmark. A 10-year employee of AARP, Phillips said he has always worked for nonprofits and always had interest in aging issues.
The 58-year-old national organization is similarly projecting a youthful vibe. Its national publication, AARP the Magazine, features celebrity covers representing both the upper end of the organization’s target market — Julie Andrews (80), Clint Eastwood (85), Sidney Poitier (88) — and stars whose images and fan bases skew younger — Johnny Depp (52), Michelle Obama (52), Dr. Dre (50). And although at 74 Bob Dylan is no spring chicken, when the legendarily interview-averse singer-songwriter (whose songs include “Forever Young”) released a new album last year, it seemed culturally significant that he spoke to only one publication: AARP the Magazine.
More important, Phillips said, is letting people know that AARP focuses on issues that eventually will touch almost everybody as they get older: financial security, livable communities, affordable health care, support for caregivers. So, for example, the state AARP:
• Advocates on behalf of Minnesota Secure Choice, a proposal to make workplace retirement savings plans available to all.
• Encourages the development of “livable communities” — walkable communities with diverse development and convenient transportation (features for which millennials also show a preference).
• Offers resources for caregivers and lobbies on behalf of a law that would require hospitals to provide assistance to caregivers.
Most ambitious, perhaps, are the organization’s efforts to change the very image of aging itself, said Jim Scheibel, AARP Minnesota’s president.
“We’re trying to disrupt how people view who aging people are,” said Scheibel, 68, a former mayor of St. Paul who now teaches at Hamline University. As a St. Paul City Council member in the early ’80s, Scheibel, then in his 30s, formed the Elder Council, a panel of older residents who worked on issues such as improving snowplowing. “I had some wisdom to say we’ve got this great resource on our hands in this community, and they really wanted to contribute.”
Scheibel sees older people as not just sometimes needing help from others, but often quite capable of providing it. They have experience and skills to share, knowledge and energy to contribute, time to devote. He’d like to see the term “senior citizens” replaced with “citizen seniors.”
“Elders have a role to play in being models, in demonstrating that citizens can make a difference,” Scheibel said.
That’s in everybody’s interest. After all, old age is the one demographic that everyone, if they’re lucky, will transition into eventually.