When the Trump administration came to town, it became clear that despite the septuagenarian in office, policies aiding older people were probably going to take a hit. President Donald Trump spent his first months in office leading a fight to repeal Obamacare and replace it with legislation that would slash Medicaid while proposing a budget and tax plan that put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block.
Cue Jo Ann Jenkins, a fast-talking, by-the-book advocate who, despite her even-keeled demeanor, leads one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington. She’s forcing the government to pay heed to the world’s fastest-growing demographic: the older. (AARP has done away with using the terms “elderly” and “old people.”)
As the first permanent female CEO of AARP — a 38 million-strong membership organization for those 50 and up — Jenkins has wielded the organization’s muscle to fight cuts to health care while also taking on the stigmatization that comes with aging. Jenkins is calling for “adequate health care to help [people] live longer,” she says. It’s not exactly shooting for the moon but a policy she saw threatened “far too many” times this year, as Republicans in Congress made at least four sloppy, last-ditch efforts to dismantle the current system — all of which failed, thanks in part to the powerful lobbying group’s staunch opposition to them.
AARP is no small force. It is one of the top 10 spenders on lobbying in the United Sates, having put some $270 million toward that purpose since 1998. This year, the nonpartisan organization has spent almost $6.5 million pushing its core issues like health care and Social Security.
Jenkins, 59 and based in Washington, worked for the federal government for 25 years, eventually becoming the chief operating officer of the Library of Congress before moving to the AARP Foundation — the organization’s charitable arm — in 2010, a transition she says, then in her early 50s, couldn’t have come at a better time. The organization’s missions all “became relevant [to me] very quickly,” Jenkins says.
While she’s fighting policies that would harm the older, Jenkins is also taking on a larger battle: getting Americans to redefine what it means to grow older, an initiative she calls “disrupting aging.”
“It’s really about, how do we change the conversation in this country about what it means to get older?” she adds. Scientific and medical discoveries are changing what it means to age. A little over 10 years ago, workers 50 and older made up about 25 percent of the workforce. By 2022, they’re projected to constitute more than a third of it. And employees 65 and older currently outnumber teenagers in the workforce for the first time since 1948. Add to this the fact that, according to a 2009 study, most babies born since 2000 in developed countries will live past 100 and it’s clear why Jenkins is looking to the future.
“At 50, we don’t all of a sudden lose everything that we’ve learned,” Jenkins says. “In fact, [those years have given] us time to engage and to be more purposeful in the work that we’re doing.”
Ruby Mellen is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.