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AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins: What 'Disrupt Aging' Is All About

Here’s what we’re doing to change the conversation

I’ll never forget my 50th birthday. My husband took me out to an elegant dinner and surprised me by inviting a number of our friends, not to mention our two children. I was having the time of my life. It was wonderful. I thought to myself, Life doesn’t get any better than this! Then, I started opening my birthday cards.

“Happy 50th — You’re now officially over the hill.”

“Welcome to the Over the Hill gang.”

“Turning 50 — Don’t worry: You’ve still got it … So what if you can’t remember where it is? Happy 50th birthday.”

At first, I didn’t think much about it — just part of the ritual of turning 50. But the more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became.

I really felt good about turning 50, celebrating with my friends and being happy about where I was in life. But when I read those cards, it occurred to me that hidden within them was a not-so-subtle cultural stereotype that didn’t fit the way that I and many of my contemporaries felt. I wasn’t old. I wasn’t over the hill; I was on top of the mountain. I liked being there and planned on enjoying it for a while. In fact, I was already thinking about what mountain I wanted to climb next. I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t be defined by my age. I want people to look at me for who I am, not how old I am.

So, when I became CEO of AARP in 2014, I set out to change the conversation about what it means to grow older — to disrupt aging. I wanted to challenge outdated stereotypes and attitudes and spark new solutions, so people can choose how they want to live as they age. 

Since we started, we’ve seen Disrupt Aging grow into a movement. I’m inspired by the everyday age disruptors who are changing the way they live as they age — following their passions, exploring their possibilities, chasing their dreams. 

  • People like Yuyang Zheng, 34, who manages four generations under one roof — her husband and 6-year-old twins, plus parents and grandparents.
  • Or, Talib Aleem, who learned that success is attainable at any age. She says, “I came from humble beginnings, but managed to earn science and electrical engineering degrees at 22, and later a Ph.D. at 43. By 45, I was an adjunct professor at George Washington University and started figure skating internationally at 55. But nothing has felt as good as this: two figure skating medals, gold in singles and bronze in pairs, at age 63!”

Even Hollywood is getting into the act, breaking down ageist barriers and helping to create a new image of aging, from Nicole Kidman challenging ageism in Hollywood to Rita Moreno having the time of her life at 87 and loving it.

The advertising and beauty industries also are questioning outdated beliefs about age. In 2018, Allure magazine collaborated with AARP to bust stigmas around aging, and AARP encouraged advertising and marketing leaders to see the growing aging population as a business opportunity.

And, business and industry are seizing on this Disrupt Aging opportunity, innovating new products and services in virtually every industry to help people live better as they age. Especially exciting are technological innovations incorporating voice recognition, virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence to help people live better as they age. And, it isn’t happening just here in the U.S. When I visited Japan and Taiwan in 2018, I saw how government, industry and educational institutions are coming together to make life better for people as they age.

All of this is having a positive effect on the way we live and age. Instead of seeing just dependent retirees, we’re beginning to see a new type of experienced, accomplished work force. Instead of seeing expensive costs, we’re seeing an exploding consumer market generating $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity by people 50 and over. Instead of seeing a growing pool of dependents, we’re beginning to see intergenerational communities with new and different strengths. And, we’re beginning to realize that more often than not, what’s good for the old is also good for the young.

In 2018, Disrupt Aging participated in the AARP-sponsored Future City Competition with 40,000 middle schoolers from Virginia to Nigeria. The students worked with coaches and experts for eight months to plan and build tabletop models of cities 100 years from now. This year’s competition theme was age-friendly cities. Winning teams emphasized accessibility, healthy aging and community integration. After seeing the positive view of aging that students incorporated into their designs, contest judge and AARP vice president of enterprise initiatives Kamili Wilson observed, “They will change the future for the better. I’m convinced!”

In 2019, through this newsletter, we’ll not only continue to challenge outdated beliefs and attitudes about aging, we’ll bring you real life examples of how people are creating their own solutions for living and aging better. Our hope is to inspire you to create your own rules for living better as you age. Our vision is a world in which each of us is valued for who we are, not judged by how old we are.

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