Before this year is out, I'll get a chance to join a special club. It's long-established, with millions of members; it provides financial discounts, publishes a respected insiders' magazine, and has powerful lobbying clout. The only problem is that, like Groucho Marx, I'm skeptical of any club that would take me as a member.
Because I'll be 50 in November, I'm about to be hounded by pleas to join the American Association for Retired Persons, or AARP. But I'm neither a retired person nor much of a joiner. How to solve that problem--how to turn me and millions of my generational classmates into dues-paying, loyal, and most of all marketable members--was the biggest question on the agenda for AARP when the group held its four-day national convention in Minneapolis last week.
By some estimates, AARP is already second in size only to the Catholic Church in North America; imagine the group's delight as the post-1945 demographic bulge arrives on its doorstep. AARP nearly salivates in public over the prospect, and has been working to remake itself in the target demographic's image. A few years ago its bimonthly magazine Modern Maturity was stylishly made over by the old Esquire staff, and writers from the Village Voice signed on. In each issue, the magazine proudly notes who's 50 by now: David Bowie, Bobby Orr, Al Gore, Rhea Perlman, Clarence Thomas. The Minneapolis convention offered twice-daily "Boomer Track" talks, and America Online handily offered up a promotional new subscribers/members package: "If you danced to the Beatles, cruised in a Thunderbird, or tuned into Dick Clark, you have earned..." 100 free hours and a $2-a-month AOL discount.
Ironically, the main news event of the Minneapolis convention--the release of the first findings from a major study on the post-1945 set--served only to suggest that boomers aren't flocking to the AARP. Most of them, the report showed, are often unsure whether they'll ever want--or be financially able--to retire full time. A whopping 80 percent "plan to work during retirement." Perhaps not coincidentally, only about 25 percent of eligible boomers have joined AARP, while about half of the U.S. senior population carries the group's card. "Change is certain, but progress is not," Bill Clinton's pal James Carville told the convention in a fiery little speech, and he could have been talking to his client for the day: Americans may be aging gracefully, but AARP is not necessarily.
Already, the organization has come a long way from its roots. Begun in 1958 with the goal of beating health insurance discrimination against people over 65, AARP has grown into one of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups, representing what are now either 20 million or 32 million members (there's a dispute over the group's estimate of spouse memberships). It's also become a marketing powerhouse: Today, membership in AARP means access to low-cost magazine subscriptions, insurance discounts, and coupons for every senior-targeted product imaginable. Like many members, my 87-year-old mother pays the $8 monthly membership fee strictly to receive Modern Maturity.
The group's attraction to marketers was clearly evident on the Minneapolis convention floor. Crowds mobbed the booths offering trips (Poland, Spain, Britain), free eats (Ensure, Vita-Mix smoothies, Quaker Oats) or the SAS extra-comfy shoes. Major car brands (no imports!) occupied the center of the hall, and Kellogg's promised in a hand-lettered sign that "If you are 90+ we have a special prize for you today!" (The prize? A stuffed animal.) The Funeral Directors Association's booth rubbed elbows with the Winnebago RV stand; the University of Minnesota offered advice on parceling out family heirlooms while a few paces over, sunny pockets of America offered themselves for travel or resettlement. A high-tech area hosted Microsoft, NASA, Boeing and others--AARP, after all, represents the group that saw American industry triumph first in a world war and then in the world's markets.
The "Baby Boomer Track" sessions, however, were a disappointment. While a few were precisely targeted to Social Security and the care of aging parents, the others were in the same ilk as the general run of talks--from media columnists and pundits (Jane Bryant Quinn, Carl Rowan) and politicians old and new (Al Gore, Caspar Weinberger). I was especially bugged by the spiel from Microsoft, which simultaneously treated the audience as computer novices and praised its--presumably work-related--Internet savvy. AARP's own AARP Online booths were more sincere, with staffers happily observing that "two years ago we had to coach everyone through Internet surfing, but this year they just walk up and say, 'I need to check my e-mail.'"
Watching AARP and its exhibitors waffle about just who its current and future members are and what they want, it became fairly clear that generational stereotypes are already crumbling: Grannies wear tennis shoes, and many are even more active checking investment portfolios than aging yuppies. Still, as someone who once came to this same location to hear Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield, I soon realized that few in the vast hall had ever attended a concert where the musicians' primary goal was to play very, very loud. Besides Debbie Reynolds's performances, the only music on hand came from a radio station based on big-band crooners and a Swedish folk band playing "Halsa dem Darhemma," my grandfather's favorite emigration song.
What's at stake is symbolic, but still important. Where people aged 70 and up can recall the nation uniting in a great cause (whether fighting a Dust Bowl, the Nazis, or the Communist Menace), people aged 42 to 70 recall only division over race, ideology, and the use of military force. The over-70s sought and often found lifetime employment; the boomers have been downsized or part-timed until they learned not to trust anyone. At the Social Security booth, I asked whether many people walk up worried about their current or future payments and was told, "It depends on their age. The older ones are quite happy to thank us for prompt service and clear advice. But the younger they are, the more worried."
Finally, the 50ish set is the first generation that has been marketed to as a generation from the start; this is the demographic that grew up with the term "demographic" (coined in 1960s TV programming), and that sequentially coined, abused, and then got sick of the term "lifestyle."
AARP, it seems, realizes that selling itself to this slippery, skeptical and--in the words of its own report--"somewhat self-involved" crowd will take some doing. Within the next few weeks, the group plans to take part in a promotional extravaganza as the "Rock the Vote" campaign of MTV fame becomes "Rock the Ages"--because, as one AARP field staffer explains, "our membership is 90 percent registered to vote, but the younger ones don't actually go to the polls." The project will be hyped on the Internet as "NetVote '98" and boosted in public by a two-generation pop-culture tag team, names to be announced. "We were hoping for Bob and Jakob Dylan," the staffer at the Rock the Ages booth told me, "but Bob wasn't available."