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Why the head of AARP thinks you shouldn’t retire

AARP leader Jo Ann Jenkins explains why the traditional view of retirement is changing. (Video: Lillian Cunningham, Jayne Orenstein, Randolph Smith and Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

AARP chief executive Jo Ann Jenkins fits the increasingly common profile of her nonprofit’s nearly 40 million members—she’s 57 years old and has no intention of retiring any time soon. In fact, her biggest piece of advice about retirement is: “Don’t retire.”

These days, close to half of AARP’s members are still working. And that, coupled with longer and longer life expectancies, has led Jenkins and her staff to fundamentally recast the organization’s mission.

Jenkins has spent her career working in just about every corner of Washington. She held federal jobs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture. She was also the chief operating officer of the Library of Congress, where she developed the National Book Festival. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What’s an important leadership lesson you learned in your career?

One thing I’ve learned is that leaders can appear throughout the organization. It’s not just people at the top. Leaders come with this innate ability to create a vision and create followers. I always make a distinction between leadership and management—how one person can help people move through difficult challenges when others, who may be in the same kind of position, can’t.

Q. What’s the biggest change you are trying to incite at AARP?

The biggest change we’re facing and really trying to tackle is that people are living longer and longer. Most people are going to live another 30 to 40 years past age 50. So we really need to be able, as an organization, to think about the wants and needs of the people 50-plus as they move forward in this additional life—and not be so tied to solutions of the past.

Being 50 today is very different than it was for my parents. Over a third of our members are still in the workplace. The whole idea of retirement is totally changing. People may be retiring from one job, but that doesn’t mean they want to stay at home or travel. Some of them do, but many start part-time work or volunteering. A lot of people see this as a time to find real meaning and purpose. That’s triggering a big shift at AARP.

Q. What kind of shift?

We are focusing more at the local level. So you’re going to see us working to fight the cost of utilities, or to help build livable communities, or to help people find jobs.

Right now we have a large presence here in Washington, and we do a lot of our advocacy and change work here on Capitol Hill. We also have 50 state offices around the country, usually located in the state capitol, doing that same kind of work. But this new strategy is about showing up in communities. We hope there are going to be local AARP offices in strip malls and shopping centers where people are every day.

Since many people are living long past traditional retirement age, they are going to need additional financial income. So often, whether pushed by pain or pulled by possibilities, people are looking for work. The sharing economy, with companies like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb, is creating new opportunities for people who are 50 and older.

Q. Is ageism in the workplace something you hear about a lot from members?

Ageism still exists—and not just for the old, but also for the young. I have a daughter who just entered the workplace about a year ago, and we talk about these things quite often.

What is good for the old is also good for the young. We should not be trying to pit generations against each other. We should be thinking about how we take the value of age and experience and pair it with this energy and use of technology to bring about something in the workplace that we haven’t had in previous years.

Age brings wisdom and experience and dedication to the workplace. Having older workers matched up with younger generations is going to prove to be a very successful business model.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge in trying to reimagine what AARP will be?

One of the biggest challenges is getting staff to take strategic risks. AARP has been very successful in the past, particularly as it relates to our advocacy and social-change work, so it can be hard getting staff to understand that it’s okay to take risk as we position the organization to meet the new needs of people who are 50 and over, versus just doing the same thing.

We have really tried to tackle that on a number of fronts. We launched an innovation lab, and right now we’re trying to embed into every employee’s personal performance that innovation is a part of their job.

Q. What do you consider the most important thing AARP is lobbying for these days in Washington?

It’s hard to put your finger on just one, but we’re always focused on protecting and securing programs like Social Security and Medicare in the future. I can’t stress enough how important it is for individuals to save early and to plan for their financial future. Whether you’re living in good health or not, you really are going to need those financial resources and Social Security alone is not going to be able to handle that.

We’re also always trying to find ways to do away with fraud, waste and mismanagement in some of the programs that are currently on the books.

Q. What tends to be the biggest wall you hit up against in your lobbying efforts?

Getting lawmakers to plan for the future and and tackle these issues today before they get to a crisis point.

Having worked on the Hill, both in the executive branch and the legislative branch, I know it’s easier to get legislation through at a crisis point then it is to think methodically and clearly about sensible, reasonable changes that need to be made in some of these programs. I would like to see that change.

Q. What do you see as the best, most realistic way around that challenge?

If I knew that, I’m not sure I would be in this job. I mean, I think people generally want to do what’s right, but the politics of elections every two years in the Congress and then every six years in the Senate feeds into that short term-ism. But these programs are ones that the American people have paid into over a lifetime of work, and they deserve straight and direct answers.

How does the uncertainty around Social Security, in particular, affect the way you map out AARP’s long-term strategy?

The fastest-growing age segment in this country is people over the age of 85, and the second is people over the age of 100. Ten thousand people a day are turning 65, and that’s going to happen for the next 15 years. We are becoming an older society, and so we really need to think through the kind of programs we’re going to need as a country when we outlive some of the programs and resources we currently have.

Q. Aside from saving as early and as much as you can, what advice do you give people about retirement?

My first piece of advice is: Don’t retire. I’m 57 and having the best time. I’ve had some wonderful work experiences during the course of my 30-plus years here in Washington, but I have to say that today I am finding more fulfillment in the work that I’m doing than I have in any other position I’ve held.

Q. What’s a key piece of advice—maybe it’s the same, “don’t retire”—that you give to people who are 50 or 60 and suddenly realize they have not saved enough?

The first thing I say is: It’s never too late. People need to be repetitive and continuous in putting in those small amounts of money, regardless of how little. The compounding of those dollars and interest actually adds up.

One of the biggest issues our country is facing is the issue of caregiving. At some point, each of us is going to either be a caregiver or need someone to care for us, and those costs average around $80,000 a year. Think about the financial burden that’s going to put on almost every family in this country. It’s never too late to start saving, because we need to anticipate some of these really significant costs that are coming down the pike as we continue to age and live longer.

Q. Numerous blogs and books have sprung up recently that give advice to young people on how to ‘retire’ as early as 35 or 40. Is that a community AARP is interested in being part of in some way?

We absolutely want to be engaged with them. We see a lot of our members engaged in the same thing, where they may have retired from a traditional job and are now making extra income through a shared-economy job like Airbnb. We also know that people 50 and older are one of the fastest-growing groups starting their own businesses.

It’s more about financial independence than retirement. It’s really just about doing something totally different and using the freedom that being financially secure allows them.

I wish I knew what the right word was that comes after retirement. We often think about it in stages of childhood, adolescence, work, retirement. This new increased longevity is creating a whole new life stage.

Q. Do you think AARP will always define its community as 50 and older? Or can you see a day when there’s a different metric for defining AARP members?

Our focus is really on those 50 and older today, but what’s good for the over 50 crowd is also good for those who are under 50.

We had a big campaign to talk about creating sidewalks that had accessibility for wheelchairs, and our biggest partners were young mothers with strollers. This is something that was designed to help the older person, but it had just as much impact on the young. I think you’re going to see a lot more solutions like that.

Q. Are the demographics of your employees changing?

Yes. Our average age is around 48 and we have more women than men, but we have an increasing number of young people who are joining our organization, as well as older.

Q. Is that changing the type of ideas you get?

One of the big things we’re doing is creating teams of employees of all ages to work on specific programs. The more we can engage a number of generations in coming up with solutions, the better off we’re going to be.

We developed a program called “Experience Corps,” where retired AARP members are going into schools and being reading tutors for kindergarten through third grade. Then we have a program called “Mentor Up,” where high-school and college students are training older people to to use their cell phones and iPads, and how to download materials or upload your resume to apply for a job.

Q. Do you think you’ll ever retire?

Some day I think I will. But AARP was started by a woman 57 years ago, and I happen to be the first full-time CEO of AARP since she founded it. I’m having a great time, so I don’t see retirement in the foreseeable future.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you got at some point in your career?

You’re only as good as the people who work with you. If you treat people well, they will do great things in the workplace. That has proven true throughout every work experience I’ve had.

Q. What’s a leadership lesson you learned the hard way?

In my former life, I was very fortunate to work with and in both Republican and Democratic administrations. In my work in the legislative branch, I would routinely get direction from one party and then, two years later, direction from the other. You never know who will end up being in what position, so don’t make unnecessary enemies. That’s part of the key to surviving here in Washington. Focus on the mission and don’t get sidetracked by personalities.

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