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Chief Activist for the Retired

Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of the world’s largest nonprofit, non-partisan membership organization, got her start in Alabama.

Jo Ann Jenkins advocates for society to rethink its stereotypes of older Americans and for older Americans to use their bonus years with gusto.

Jo Ann Jenkins advocates for society to rethink its stereotypes of older Americans and for older Americans to use their bonus years with gusto.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Even being voted “most likely to succeed” in your Theodore High School graduating class is no guarantee in life.

But Jo Ann Jenkins’ classmates got their prediction right.

After 15 years with the Library of Congress, ending with a term as chief operating officer, she moved to AARP, the now official name of what used to be the acronym for the American Association of Retired Persons, starting with its foundation and now CEO of the parent organization.

Leadership comes naturally. Even as a young child, she quips, “I always used to tell other people what to do.”

After her active high school years, she moved on to Spring Hill College — where she gave this year’s commencement address — “fascinated with government and service and hoping for a career as a news anchor.”

Building on that interest in government, and with the aid of then-U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan, she got the opportunity to intern with the Republican National Committee. Spring Hill agreed that a Washington, D.C. internship was worth college credit if she worked up a research paper to go along with it. She did so. But she returned to campus ready for a career of doing rather than reporting on the doings of others.

She joined Alabama Power after graduation but spent her first paycheck for a trip to revisit the nation’s capital where she took a job with Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign.

It’s been quite a career from there — to the Department of Housing and Urban Development; then the Department of Transportation, where Elizabeth Dole was working to bring women into management; then to Agriculture, where she helped small and medium-size business win access to government contracts.

After marriage and children, Jenkins got an unexpected offer. The Library of Congress was facing management issues and she joined the staff to help. She rose quickly to senior advisor to the chief of staff and finally to COO of the Library. Good memories of her time there include transformation of the Thomas Jefferson Building, which she regards as among the most beautiful in Washington, D.C. It fascinates her that the building cost $6 million when it was built and $90 million to restore two centuries later.

And it’s a personal delight that she helped organize First Lady Laura Bush’s Book Festival project while on the Library of Congress staff and will be one of the authors reading at this year’s event.

Her new book, “Disrupt Aging,” urges individuals and society in general to redefine aging — noting that many, many Americans will live long past the 65 age long associated with retirement and that they need to prepare to make the most of the “bonus” years.

The book is a direct outgrowth of her newest venture, with AARP.

“After 25 years of government service, I wanted to run a nonprofit,” she says, and the opportunity arose with AARP’s Foundation.

The work gave a new focus to her life, concentrating her energies on efforts to eliminate the worst issues of aging — hunger, housing and isolation. She moved on to AARP itself as COO and in 2014 became the CEO.

It’s a job worth doing well, says Jenkins.

First, she’s concerned with Social Security. When it was founded 80 years ago, she notes, life expectancy was 68. Now it’s 78 and rising. At first, 20 people paid in for each person collecting; now the ratio is 5 to 1. Rather than throwing up our hands helplessly, she says, it’s time to work to make sure this vital program is there to meet the need into the future.

AARP is also leading the nation’s discussion on the issues of caregiving. In Alabama, for example, 880,000 people are caregivers at one time — which translates to a $450 billion value if those caregivers were paid rather than offering services to family. It’s not an issue that’s going away. The fastest growing age group in America is 85-plus, and the second fastest is 100-plus, Jenkins notes.

Hunger issues are also a key element of the AARP agenda. Alabama is identified as one of the nation’s top 10 hungriest states, say Jenkins and her Alabama organization’s lead communicator, Jamie Harding. It’s also one of the states where people in need may turn down help, worrying that someone else needs the help more than they do. So the organization works not only to provide food but also to help individuals learn to grow food and help themselves.

And finances are key, Jenkins notes.

“People can’t afford to live on Social Security alone,” she says. In Alabama, 57 percent of people over 65 rely on Social Security for more than half their income while 30 percent use Social Security for more than 90 percent, says Harding. That Social Security benefit runs about $13,000 a year.

So it’s important for people to think of saving as paying for the rest of your life rather than just for retirement, says Jenkins.

And, she counsels, it’s never too late to start saving.

Through it all, she says, “It’s important to ask yourself, ‘What do you want to do with the extra years?’ It’s a huge opportunity to do something you love and to give back to the community.”

And if she could get people to redefine “middle age” from 50 to 65, that would be okay, too.

“I want us to be viewed as who we are and not how old we are.”

Nedra Bloom is copy editor for Business Alabama and Elizabeth Gelineau is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Mobile.

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