For several decades, Baby Boomers have largely ignored GI Generation social and fraternal organizations — from Elks and Moose to Kiwanis and Rotary. Some pundits have denounced Boomers for lacking the same level of civic commitment as their parents' generation. Now even AARP, the august advocacy and benefits organization for adults 50+, has been grappling with a dwindling number of local chapters: down from 4,000 to 2,535 nationwide.
Leading-edge Baby Boomers, the first wave born between 1946 and 1955, are changing the face of AARP.
Although Boomers have helped swell AARP’s national membership to over 36 million, the central attraction appears to be materialistic. New recruits pay $12.50 annually for discounts on everything from health insurance to hotel accommodations. Boomers have largely ignored the networking and social benefits of membership.
Another troublesome and ironic issue confronting AARP is negative perceptions of Boomers expressed by facets of the organization. For example, at the AARP National Convention in Las Vegas, organizers distributed a study entitled "A Changing Political Landscape: As One Generation Replaces Another." Limited by a small survey sample size of 603, the study nevertheless promotes sweeping, off-putting conclusions:
"Our findings indicate that Boomers have a greater belief in government entitlements and a lesser belief in personal obligations than the GI Generation. Boomers are more likely to feel the government owes them something and less likely to believe they owe the country certain obligations, such as military service and paying taxes."
Aspects of this study appeared in the September / October 2004 issue of AARP: The Magazine, also peppered with unflattering conclusions such as:
"The potential downside of a maturing Baby Boom is clear: as Boomers replace GIs as the dominant electoral demographic, the politics of selfishness could triumph."
According to Leonard Steinhorn, author of The Greater Generation,"during the 1950s and early ‘60s there were about 5,000 IRS-approved nonprofits. But from the 1970s through the 1990s, when Boomers came into their own, that number soared to nearly 45,000." Granted, Boomers have not been known for closely following the traditions of the GI Generation, but Boomers have been creative in developing their own ways of giving back.
Then there is the concept of "checkbook philanthropy." In a recent study of charitable giving, Boomers out-donated "Post-Boomers" as a percentage of the respective cohort population in every category. For organizations "that help needy Americans," 73% of Boomers contributed versus 57% of Post-Boomers. For organizations "that fight diseases," 69% of Boomers contributed versus 43% of Post-Boomers. For "church or faith-based causes," 53% of Boomers contributed versus 45% of Post-Boomers.
Legacy organizations such as AARP must challenge Boomer stereotypes while adapting marketing and message strategies to appeal to this iconoclastic cohort. Boomers give back and participate philanthropically in so many ways their critics underestimate or deny. This generation chooses paths less traveled, and the next path may lead them away from AARP. That would be a huge mistake for all concerned. Boomers need a thriving and politically aggressive AARP looking after the interests of the nation's swelling 50+ population.