Retirement is a full-time job for AARP president

Joseph Perkins spent much of his adult life contemplating retirement.

Now that he's earned it, what does he do? He accepts a two-year, unpaid position as president of the 32-million-member American Association of Retired Persons, (AARP) a job that finds him almost constantly on the go.

This is fulltime for the former corporate retirement manager for Polaroid, involving tremendous amounts of reading, committee work, testifying at hearings, and travel.

"They're rolling us [the AARP officers] out more and more in various public forums," he says. "People like to see us." Mr. Perkins now leaves his Peabody, Mass., home about 40 weeks a year.

For several years, Perkins manned a phone for a crisis hot line. Even now, despite his schedule, Perkins continues to do free one-to-one retirement counseling for a local agency. A former widower, he met his current wife, Helen, while doing this work.

He talks about easing working people into these transitions and about his own journey up the AARP ladder. Elected vice president in 1994, he automatically succeeded to president-elect and then president this year.

While at Polaroid, Perkins was an advocate for preretirement planning and also for gradual retirement, an innovative approach designed to let people test the retirement waters.

"We found that some people had a terrible time making their decision about whether to retire," Perkins says. "We came up with this program that allowed them to hitchhike onto the existing leave-of-absence policy."

An employee could take a three-month leave of absence - extend it for three more, if desired - and still hold his job. The number of weekly work days or hours could also be reduced.

Polaroid was the only company to test this concept to any great degree, Perkins says. Only about 200 people elected this option over a 10-year period, not because it wasn't attractive, but because corporate downsizing made workers reluctant to try these programs, he observes.

"I have a belief that bosses just don't like it when people aren't around," Perkins says. "Even when they don't need them, they want them there."

A particular disappointment for him is the workplace tendency to view less-regular workers as less committed. One group challenged this way, he says, are women pressed into service as caregivers to parents. "When they work only half a day, the last thing in the world they're being is a dilettante," he says. And the same holds true, he contends, for others with legitimate reasons to scale back their hours.

Greater worker accommodation, Perkins states, actually rewards the employer. "There are many studies," he says, "that show that when you give a person flexible hours, there will be a greater degree of productivity than from those harnessed to their seat 40 hours [a week]."

Ultimately, he thinks, employers will have to find ways to be more flexible with an increasingly older work force.

Perkins realizes he enjoys a wonderful platform as AARP's president, but he doesn't claim to speak for all seniors, or even those in his organization, which is open to those age 50 and over.

"One of the hardest things to do at the AARP is get consensus," he says. "Sometimes people think we're a voting block that votes one way. It's a myth."

What seniors are good at doing, he says, is showing up to vote, partly because they have the time and partly because it's a "generational thing."

Perkins is convinced that many of his generation have also had a certain politeness instilled in them.

This, coupled with the need of many live-alones to stay connected, makes seniors frequent targets of telemarketing fraud, he notes. To combat this, the AARP is hosting forums around the country, trying to build awareness of this problem.

"We really have to educate seniors that they've got to learn how to hang up," Perkins says.

His personal strategy? "Don't hang up in the middle of one of their sentences, hang up right in the middle of one of your own."

As Perkins well knows, some seniors actually welcome solicitations as a means of coping with isolation. While at Polaroid, he discovered low-income retirees actually inviting back an exploitative tax preparer who "was such a nice man they wanted him to visit at least once a year."

Loneliness is just one challenge seniors face in maintaining their homes. To help, AARP has a program, Connections for Independent Living, that provides money-management and other forms of assistance. This is as representative of the AARP, Perkins says, as the association's better-known advocacy efforts, which account for only 12 percent of the association's budget.

"Everybody thinks it's a much larger percentage, that all we are is a big lobby," he says. In fact, the picture is completed with information, education, community, and member services.

Because of downsizing and belt-tightening in local governments and public institutions nationwide, Perkins says more opportunities for substantive volunteering exist than ever before.

The options don't make it any easier. "Choosing a volunteer opportunity is just as difficult as choosing a paid-for situation," Perkins says. "You're not going to treat it lightly unless you treat life lightly. Therefore it deserves the same degree of scrutiny and looking for the right opportunity as finding the right job does."

His advice: Start looking early, before you retire. If things don't work out after accepting a volunteer position, say so and graciously move on.

Many organizations, including the AARP, have talent banks eager to enlist people with certain skills, he says.

Neither side should hang back, though. "Volunteers love to be asked to volunteer," Perkins reminds. "Just like everything else: You didn't ask me, so I didn't realize you wanted me."

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