Aarp Turns 50

By Joe Volz

November 20, 2008 5 min read


How the agency synonymous with old age is growing up

Joe Volz

Creators News Service

That venerable voice of Americans over 50, AARP, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and is stronger than ever. But a decade ago, when I retired as an AARP speechwriter at the Washington, D.C. headquarters, things looked bleak.

It was difficult to get baby boomers to join, and many who did left after a year. Strategists at headquarters worried that many boomers didn?t want to belong to any of the same organization in which their parents and grandparents participated -- that made them look too old, and this generation planned to stay young forever.

The joke was that boomers cringed when they approached 50 and received the inevitable invitation. Their relentless hunt for members became material for late night comedians; they suggested if the government really wanted to find Bin Laden, it should turn the job over to AARP.

The situation has changed. Enrollment has been soaring. The other day, AARP signed up its 40 millionth member, which is an increase of more than 10 percent from that time.

The main reason is that AARP has become an extraordinary marketer, pedaling itself not as the voice of aging shuffleboard-playing septuagenarians but as the spokesman of young and active 50-year-olds: Those who bike and run and swim and seem to be perpetually in motion.

The mastermind behind this renaissance is chief executive Bill Novelli, a 60-something public relations man who enjoys walking up the 10 stories to his office each morning and teases those with less energy. He once played a practical joke on other employees, putting up a sign that the elevators were going to be shut down and workers could walk up the stairs the way he did.

AARP has made many other changes, too. The name for one. For years, since it was founded by Ethel Andrus -- a retired California school principal who sought better pension benefits for teachers -- AARP stood for the American Association of Retired Persons. But ?retired? denotes age and, besides, about 25 percent of the members weren?t retired. The magazine also had a name that connoted age, ?Modern Maturity.? It is now known as AARP the Magazine.

AARP introduced another marketing concept: versioning. Instead of producing one form of the magazine for everyone, there are now several types for various age groups. Novelli and his branding/marketing machine -- it is more important these days to have a degree in marketing than in gerontology at AARP -- realized that one size definitely doesn?t fit all.

AARP is attempting to get local chapters more involved in grassroots lobbying for Social Security and Medicare, even though it has a national program known as Divided We Fail. The national program is in cooperation with unions and business groups to head off those who want to privatize Social Security. However, AARP is trying to become more democratic to avoid another nightmare such as the catastrophic health debacle that occurred a decade ago. John Rother, AARP?s chief lobbyist, persuaded Congress to pass a national catastrophic health bill. Members would have paid for part of it, based on their incomes.

Rother didn?t consult with the members, and California mavericks raised such a ruckus that a frightened Congress rescinded the law after a few months. A chagrined Rother took a year?s leave of absence; he returned but now spends more time listening to the rank and file. The members wanted catastrophic health care, but complained they were paying too much for it.

The future of AARP looks bright -- these days it is definitely not your grandparents? AARP.

E-mail Joe Volz at [email protected] or write to 2528 Five Shillings Rd, Frederick, MD 21701. To find out more about Joe Volz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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