Why not join the AARP membership

The most powerful lobby in the US is the AARP. No politician can ignore the elderly.

At first glance, you don't even notice that tax advice in the Federal Building in San Francisco is a free service from AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons. A dozen mostly young citizens wait in line, their documents under their arms, until they can take a seat in the consulting room. Those who sit across from them and rummage through bank statements and tax certificates, however, are all of retirement age, some of them hunched over or with a stick.

The office hours are supervised by Helen Crisman, a 78 year old with a friendly smile and a white haired girl. She has been helping through the jungle of paragraphs free of charge for 18 years and currently oversees tax advice in seven western states. She is one of 35,000 volunteers who advise every citizen who knocks in around 7,000 locations across the United States every spring. «Our priority is the elderly, but we help everyone, regardless of age or income. That was 3 million last year », says Crisman and lets her gaze wander over the steady stream of grateful clients.

Visitors to the tax consultation hour do not learn anything about the rest of the wide range of AARP offers. “The rest” is the core business of the senior citizens' organization, but the commercial and political “mission of the mothership”, as Crisman evasively puts it, may not be advertised in a charitable offer. With almost 40 million members, the AARP is the largest and most influential lobby in the country. As an advocate for US citizens over 50, she exerts mild to strong pressure on lawmakers in Washington and the states to enforce senior-friendly social policies. Subsidiary AARP Services Inc. also earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year on products labeled with their seal of approval - from auto and health insurance to discount stamps for hotels and restaurants. Its sheer size and thematic range make the organization a regular political target and create internal tensions.

It is not without reason that critics joke that the AARP is an “association for everyone who has a birthday”. Anyone aged 50 and over can become a member for just 16 dollars a year. The invitation flutters into everyone's home without being asked, because the AARP buys the date of birth of every citizen from databases. Many, like Helen Crisman, join long before they retire. «I have nothing to do with politics. I have my opinion, but I appreciate the information and discounts, ”says the senior citizen who used to work as a trainer at United Airlines. "And I wanted to make myself useful instead of rotting in the rocking chair."

Tens of thousands of members like you, who volunteer year in, year out, are the backbone and source of power of the organization. "With the exception of perhaps the Communist Party in China or the Catholic Church, there is no group anywhere in the world that can hold a candle to the AARP in terms of political influence," says Politics Professor James Thurber from the American University in Washington. “They are organized nationwide and have an eye on all issues that concern senior citizens, from the top management in the capital down to every location in the country. As a politician, you mess with the AARP at your own risk. " The association keeps a close eye on the 38 percent of the total federal budget spent on senior programs, from social security social security to public insurance programs like Medicare.

If a top politician like ex-President Bush wants to re-regulate the reimbursement of prescription drugs or privatize social security, if his successor Obama wants to completely reform the health system, the machinery of the AARP gets in motion. The guidelines for these big questions are drawn up every two years by a “Council for National Policy” made up of voluntary experts together with the Board of Directors in Washington and published as “the book”.

All around 3000 permanent employees look it up in order to ammunition themselves with arguments for current topics. And they pass the debates, points of view and slogans on to an army of volunteers across the country, who then wake up their acquaintances and attack MPs and local politicians. "We volunteers are the face and the voice of the AARP at press conferences, hearings and debates on the street," says Helen Russ, who has been campaigning for the senior lobby since 1996, until 2006 as president of 3 million members in California. “I had no idea about the factual questions, but you learn that quickly thanks to the handouts from the full-time employees who write the speeches,” says the 78-year-old widow.

Standing in front of a microphone is not for everyone. Depending on the preferences of the members, the graying pressure on public opinion takes place on different channels. First there is the huge media presence. With a circulation of 35 million copies each, the AARP magazine and the AARP bulletin are the largest printed products in the world. The former appears only every two months, focuses primarily on entertainment and practical tips on how to grow old comfortably, and likes to put Hollywood stars like Sharon Stone on the cover. In order not to lump all readers together, the magazine appears in three editions according to age groups (50+, 60+ and 70+). The bulletin is more focused on political issues. It also has a website with 6.5 million monthly visitors and its own television and radio studio that produces programs and talk shows that are broadcast by hundreds of stations across the country.

The organization must always walk the fine line between harmless information and propaganda for its “non-partisan” goals. One third of the members are divided into the large camps of the conservative Republicans, the liberal Democrats and the independent voters, so that a campaign for or against the social policy of the ruling camp can quickly lead to displeasure in their own ranks and accusations of partisanship outside leads. In the case of Barack Obama's controversial healthcare reform, which the AARP loudly supported, this resulted in a million withdrawals. The organization quickly makes up for the loss with newcomers.

"If both big parties keep accusing us of working for the other side, then we are right as advocates for people over 50," says Bill Novelli. The 71-year-old founder of the PR company of the same name was CEO of the senior citizens' lobby from 2001 to 2009; today he teaches as an economics professor at Georgetown University. Experts certify that the marketing specialist has comprehensively modernized the AARP in terms of its financial and political position. “When I took over the office, it was clear to see that the baby boomer wave was rolling towards us. We had to adjust to that, ”recalls Novelli. The baby boomers are the cohort of 78 million US citizens born between 1946 and 1964. They don't see themselves as sprightly retirees, but rather as young at heart. Accordingly, the AARP had to dust off its image.

It started with a name change. Originally founded by a Californian teacher in 1958 as the American Association of Retired Persons, the organization has been using its harmless abbreviation since 1999. After all, half of the members are still working. Novelli, quite the advertising professional, realized that nobody wants to join an old people's club. “We over 50”, on the other hand, is a collective term that doesn't hurt anyone. "If the offer and the vision are right, the message sells itself," is how he explains his focus on the magic number 50.

So he freshened up the annual delegates' meeting with a week-long party called “Life @ 50 +” at different locations. More than 25,000 visitors have come to the spectacle, who get fitness tips from Martina Navratilova and listen to Lionel Richie or Tony Bennett. Meanwhile, several hundred AARP business partners are spreading their goods in the exhibition hall, from the United Health insurance company to the Walgreens drugstore chain to the computer manufacturer Dell. AARP and its foundation are recognized by the tax authorities as charitable, but their subsidiaries AARP Services Inc. and AARP Financial Inc., which were split off in 1999 due to political pressure, are printing money by licensing the brand as a "seal of approval" and collecting commissions. In fiscal 2010, that was roughly $ 680 million, or more than two and a half times the revenue from membership fees. In addition, there are 123 million dollars in advertising income in the various house organs.

Novelli can boast of having built AARP into a $ 1.4 billion business that most corporations can only dream of retaining customers. The organization can permanently bombard its 40 million members with special offers that are legally separate, but practically inextricably linked to the activities of the foundation and political lobbying - from cruises to cruciate ligament operations. America's baby boomers are the most sought-after audience among advertisers, as they spend around $ 2.5 trillion a year - a number with 12 zeros - and, amazingly, shop three times as much online as supposedly tech-savvy younger customers.

For critics, this thriving business is an inherent conflict of interest that even the division into multiple corporations cannot resolve. “The AARP has two souls in its chest,” explains Frederick Lynch, professor at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles and author of the standard work “One Nation under AARP”. On the one hand, it wants to be a “trademark of trust” that seniors listen to, especially on financial and health issues. On the other hand, according to Lynch, the AARP has been appearing more and more since Novelli's tenure as a “combative brand” that goes into battle for issues such as Obama's health care reform. «With this double objective it is impossible to please everyone. Anyone who joins just for advice and discounts gets angry when the top in Washington advertises for or against a law. " In addition, the alignment that spans several generations is creating new tensions, says Lynch. "Anyone over 70 and short of money has different interests than an active 50-year-old with good reserves."

In its campaigns, the party of the "greedy old men", as some sneer, can draw on unlimited resources. The AARP employs around 70 full-time lobbyists in Washington at peak times and spent around 189 million dollars between 2000 and 2010 on persuading them. “The amount relates to lobbying as defined in the law. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, ”says political scientist Thurber, who has been researching the subject of commercial influence for 25 years. It is difficult to quantify the scope and value of an army of volunteers who call or email their representatives at the behest of the AARP. Because of the bright color of the AARP logo, it says: "The red shirts are coming."

AARP is currently preparing the nationwide campaign “You’ve Earned a Say”. In three phases, hundreds of local debates and round tables on the Internet since May have captured opinions on the future of Social Security and Medicare; a bus tour follows in summer. A package of recommendations is to be given to the presidential candidates in time for election day in November - the next big battle of the red shirts.

Steffan Heuer is a correspondent for the business magazine “Brand eins”; he lives in San Francisco.

This article comes from the NZZ Folio magazine from June 2012 on the subject of "Pensioners". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.