Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, is an exemplar of the organization’s new focus on redefining what it means to be age 50 or older in America today
By Jackie Krentzman
AARP chief executive officer Jo Ann Jenkins has no trouble owning her age. Born in 1958, the same year AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) was founded, Jenkins doesn’t consider 70 the new 60, or 50 the new 40—or any such baloney. As far as she is concerned, 50 is the new 50, and that’s how it should be. Her mission is to ensure that AARP’s 38 million members, all 50 years old or older, are proud to embrace their age.
“It used to be that many people looked at turning 50 as the beginning of the decline toward death,” says Jenkins. “But that mind-set has changed. We’re going to live 20 years longer than people who turned 50 did 30 or 40 years ago, which means we have another 30 or 40 years to make a difference in the world and to do all sorts of exciting things with our lives.”
“I don’t put labels on what I should or shouldn’t be doing at a certain age.”
She is a straight shooter who doesn’t mind being blunt when she needs to, and she approaches life and work with her arms wide open.
Jenkins has developed a rallying cry that can work as both a slogan for the group and the foundation of her personal philosophy: Disrupt Aging.
As the leader of the world’s largest membership organization, Jenkins is determined to disrupt pretty much every preconceived notion of what it means to age in America. Retire at age 65? Not if it means giving up years of meaningful work. Stop running and start mall walking? Tell that to the 111,000 Americans over the age of 50 (and 3,500 over the age of 70) who ran a marathon last year, according to the nonprofit RunningUSA.
“I want people to own their age and feel good about who they are,” says Jenkins, who became the CEO in September of 2014. “This doesn’t mean that we should deny the fact of aging. Rather, we must choose how we define the aging process. This whole notion of what you should or should not do at 50 or 60 or 70 should be left up to the individual, not to societal expectations. I wanted to turn on its head the culture in this country that looks at aging as a period of decline rather than a period of growth and opportunity.”
Throughout her life and career, “disruption” has been Jenkins’s MO—although she won’t admit it. She says simply that she has never let the expectations of others define her.
Jenkins was raised on tiny Mon Louis Island, on the Alabama coast, where she was surrounded by a large extended family. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a merchant marine. Today, the island is attached to the mainland by a series of bridges, but when she was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s, the sole connection was a one-lane roadway. Her older siblings had to take the bus two hours each way to attend the black Catholic school in the nearest city, Mobile, 15 or so miles away. Jenkins instead attended a predominantly white public school in Theodore, Alabama, where she was president of the student body and was voted most likely to succeed.
“My siblings were eight to 10 years older than I was, and they grew up in a very different kind of South in the 1960s than I did several years later,” she says.
Maybe so, but even in the 1970s, it took confidence, smarts, and determination for an African American female to be elected student body president. It also took a fierce independence.
“I don’t put labels on what I should or shouldn’t be doing at a certain age,” says Jenkins.
After graduating from high school in 1976, Jenkins attended Spring Hill College, a private Catholic school in Mobile, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. She then moved to Washington, DC, where she had interned over the summers in college, and began working in the federal government. She started at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, moved to the Department of Transportation, and then to the Office of Advocacy and Enterprise at the Department of Agriculture. In 2007, she became the chief operating officer of the Library of Congress, responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the world’s largest library.
In 2004, Jenkins joined the board of AARP Services Inc., and in 2010, she was named president of the AARP Foundation. Under her leadership, the foundation increased its donor base by 90 percent in just two years.
Jenkins was tapped to lead AARP in 2014, when she was 57. “What was I expected to do at age 57?” she asks rhetorically. “Certainly not come in and be CEO. If I had taken the traditional route, I’d have had 25 years of government service at that point, and I could’ve retired and gone home.” AARP board chair Carol Raphael calls Jenkins “dynamic” and the perfect leader for AARP today with its new focus on throwing the notion of aging out the window.
“In many respects, Jo Ann is the perfect role model for leading AARP. She was in her late 50s when she became the CEO, and her energy and example personify the organization,” says Raphael. “She is a role model in the sense that she is taking on this new career path in her 50s. She also exemplifies the fact that we are in a time of embracing lifelong learning. Jo Ann is always seeking to learn about and explore new areas, to be as innovative as possible in addressing complex issues, to employ technology in new ways, and to embrace the fact that we have an increasingly multicultural population in the United States.”
AARP executive vice president and chief communications and marketing officer Martha Boudreau first met Jenkins when Jenkins was organizing the Library of Congress’s inaugural National Book Festival, hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. She marvels at Jenkins’s drive, organizational ability, and authenticity.
“I watched as she created an event of national significance while simultaneously managing a hugely complex organization,” says Boudreau. “Now, almost 15 years later, I watch her at AARP as she leads this complex organization and drives its important social mission.
“Throughout that time, Jo Ann has remained true to who she is: intensely focused, inclusive of staff at all levels, and committed to high performance. Her gift is to set a clear vision, assemble the right team and resources, and then use the levers of leadership to drive forward. Somehow, while doing all this, she weaves her wonderful sense of humor into the mix!”
AARP was founded in California in 1958 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, a retired high school principal. It grew out of the National Retired Teachers Association, which Andrus had started in the late 1940s to assist teachers with issues around aging and health care. In its early years, AARP focused on advocating for health insurers to provide insurance to retired Americans. Ever since, it has been an effective lobbying and advocacy organization for issues that matter to older Americans, including Social Security, Medicare, affordable health care, and long-term care.
To that end, AARP has launched Take a Stand, a program that puts pressure on all the presidential candidates to take an articulated, public stand on the future of Social Security and Medicare. “Social Security and Medicare are the bedrock of the whole health-care system in this country,” Jenkins says. We know that Social Security, while solid today, will face an uncertain future by 2033. We would like the new president and the Congress to come up with solutions ahead of that time frame so we don’t reach a crisis point.”
Advocacy is just one of AARP’s focal points. It has an active litigation department that combats age discrimination in the workplace. The organization is also an important resource for health-care and financial security information and services. In 2014, for example, 37,000 people volunteered for the AARP Tax-Aide program and prepared 2.6 million tax returns for low- and moderate-income Americans over age 50, making the program the fourth-largest tax preparer in the country.
Under Jenkins’s leadership, AARP has expanded its outreach into low-income and vulnerable populations around the United States, including African American, Latino, and Asian communities, which are among the fastest-growing demographics both in the country and in AARP’s membership ranks. It has been beefing up its state and local offices to provide more information, products, and services, such as free hearing exams, and has partnered with Walgreens to offer free health tests that can reveal symptoms of heart disease, diabetes, and other medical conditions.
Ultimately, Jenkins sees AARP as a social change organization—a campaign to change both the perception of Americans over 50 and their day-to-day reality. She wants to challenge the cultural norms around growing older so that aging is considered a cause for celebration and respect, rather than dismissal and fear.
“I often say that ageism is one of the last permissible forms of discrimination,” she says. “We don’t allow it if it’s by race, sexual orientation, or even income levels, but we still make fun of people of a certain age. ‘Oh, you’re turning 50, you’re over the hill.’ Why do we still allow people to say that, even comedians?” (Given that, it’s probably not a good idea to walk with Jenkins down the aisle of a stationery store stuffed with birthday cards for folks over 50, as you’ll likely get an earful!)
Jo Ann Jenkins doesn’t let those who are over 50 off the hook, either. “We do it to ourselves,” she remarks. “We say, ‘Oh my God, I’m having a senior moment.’ What does that mean? How are we thinking about age?”
Thanks to advances in medicine and technology, we are living longer and healthier, she says. Why should someone today have the same concept of aging as someone did in 1930, when the average life expectancy was 60 years old instead of nearly 80?
Reimagining age has many dimensions. Top of mind for many right now is the workplace, where baby boomers—the trailing edge of whom has already pushed passed age 50—and Millennials often have very different working styles and are trying to figure out how to play in the same sandbox. Some baby boomers are inveighing against the Millennials, interpreting (sometimes misinterpreting) their work and leadership style as one of entitlement instead of “earned.” On the flip side, some Millennials see baby boomers as dinosaurs, unwilling to adapt to the tech-enabled workplace or hear new ideas.
“I have spoken about the need for intergenerational workforces and about how we should try not to pit the old against the young,” says Jenkins. “There is a lot of value and return on investment by having not only those generations but also others paired in the workplace. We all have a lot to learn from one another.”
To that end, AARP has established Mentor Up, a program in which high school and college students train people over the age of 50 in the use of technology.
Jenkins sees the increasing number of over-50 workers who will be in the job market in the coming years as an advantage for businesses. “Ten thousand people a day are turning 65, and this will happen every day for the next 15 years,” she says. “Older workers are going to be here. I see that as a huge opportunity to address tremendous shortfalls in some employment sectors, particularly health care, the service industry, and other areas where there is a desperate need for skilled labor.”
One plus of at least some older workers is that they are not driven by compensation, she says. Instead, they are motivated by a desire to give back and to have meaning and purpose in life—the sorts of values and dimensions that add richness to the workplace.
In some respects, Jenkins has reshaped AARP in her own image. Just as Jenkins never acknowledged society’s expectations of what a young African American girl could do in the South in the 1970s, the organization is refusing to succumb to its reputation for being dowdy and predictable. It is increasing its membership and programming, embracing technology, and both accepting and initiating change. In recognition of her success in growing the organization and changing the national perception of aging, Jenkins received the 2015 Influencer of the Year award from the NonProfit Times.
According to those who know her well, this roll-up-the-sleeves and get-things-done approach is pure Jenkins. She is a straight shooter who doesn’t mind being blunt when she needs to, and she approaches life and work with her arms wide open.
KeyBank Foundation chairman and CEO Margot James Copeland first met Jenkins when they worked together with the Links Inc., a philanthropic organization made up primarily of women of color that creates educational, civic, and intercultural activities for the African American community, especially children in need. Copeland was struck by Jenkins’ desire to dive into the organization’s work in a hands-on way.
“For someone of Jo Ann’s stature, it’s easy to write a check and hope something wonderful happens,” Copeland says. “However, it’s far different when someone is generous not just financially but also with his or her time. That’s the essence of Jo Ann. When she gets involved in something, she’s fully committed at every level.”
Accordingly, AARP is throwing itself headfirst into the future. This past fall, the nonprofit, in association with J. P. Morgan Chase, launched the AARP Innovation Fund, which is investing $40 million in start-up companies working on technologies and products that are targeted to addressing the needs of the 50-and-over market.
At the same time, AARP has never lost its focus on vulnerable older Americans. For example, it has partnered with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon in the Drive to End Hunger to help the nearly 9 million Americans age 50 and older who struggle to get enough to eat.
“The way I look at it,” says Jenkins, “I don’t want to be 30 again. I may want to look and feel 30, but I’m very comfortable with my age. I am a more purposeful person because of the experience and wisdom those years have brought me. And I bet that most people over 50 would say the same thing. We are looking forward to the years ahead, not looking back on the days gone by.” DW