Retiree group attempts to recruit baby boomers

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The nation’s largest senior citizens organization is having a midlife crisis of its own as it struggles to recruit millions of aging baby boomers.
“You can’t look at what you did for prior generations and assume it will work for the boomers, too,” said Horace Deets, executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons.
At its 40th anniversary convention, expected to attract 20,000 to 30,000 older Americans to downtown Minneapolis starting Tuesday, AARP is seeking to lure baby boomers with hip seminars on the information superhighway, stress management and career changes.
“Forget everything you’ve heard about AARP being just for retired people,” urge birthday letters mailed to boomers eligible to join AARP as they turn 50 in droves.
But so far, they aren’t signing up in the numbers their parents did.
Including those automatically counted when a spouse pays AARP’s $8-a-year dues, more than 30 million people — about 45 percent of all Americans aged 50 and over — are members. By comparison, only about a quarter of baby boomers who have hit 50 have joined, Deets said.
When Linda Vrooman Peterson celebrated her 50th birthday last October, a wise-guy friend gave her a cane with a horn and rearview mirror.
“I’ll be using that before I join the AARP,” said Peterson.
Like many of her contemporaries, Peterson has had children later in life than her parents’ generation — she is the mother of a 7-year-old — and she also juggles a career in Montana’s state government.
“It’s kind of a joke, I think. A bad joke,” Ms. Peterson laughs, trying to think how she would find the time to use AARP’s travel discounts, a chief reason many older retirees join the group. “At this point I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire,” she said.
Other perks AARP offers, including special deals on health insurance and investment products, also may not appeal yet to those still getting such benefits through work.
The first 6.7 million baby boomers turned 50 in 1996 and 1997, with another 3.6 million celebrating the milestone this year. All together, 77 million new baby boomer senior citizens — born from 1946 through 1964 — are coming.
Most marketing experts consider the response to the AARP from baby boomers to be encouraging, and experience has shown that people are more likely to join after they turn 65.
But Deets says, “We’re not satisfied.”
AARP is trying to accommodate the boomers’ more independent political style by holding more debates — as opposed to partisan political events — and having them in the evenings and on weekends when working people can attend.
The group has long tackled issues important to people before they retire, such as workplace age discrimination and improved family and medical leave policies.
But fundamental change in AARP politics is likely to happen slowly as baby boomers replace their parents among the retired. The association’s lobbying agenda is set annually, with the help of volunteer delegates across the country, letters and phone calls from members, polling and other public opinion research.
The organization is an avid collector of mailing lists. If you ever have supplied your birth date on the warranty card for a new appliance, they probably have got you.
“Everybody we can find” gets an invitation to join on his or her 50th birthday, said AARP spokesman Tom Otwell, adding, “if we don’t hear back from you the first time, you’re likely to hear from us again.”