New nonprofit lets youth fight back against AARP

April 24, 2011|By Jay Hancock

AARP, the highly profitable "nonprofit" that purports to represent retirees, is at it again, plotting against youth.

It hates the Republican plan to control insane Medicare costs for seniors, urging its millions of members to "tell Congress to vote NO" on the GOP budget. But it also hates the Democratic plan, saying it would depend on "arbitrary spending targets."

The only possible conclusion is that AARP wants Medicare to maintain its ruinous course until, oh, about 2040, at which time the government will present everybody left alive with a multitrillion-dollar invoice.

"I'm a life member of AARP. If I had known what the hell that organization was I never would have joined them," says Edward H. Rensi, the former president and CEO of McDonald's USA. "They're nothing but a giant lobbying organization… They've got a weight far beyond what they ought to have."

Which is one reason Rensi and other philanthropists of a certain age are financing a nonprofit startup that could give young people a way to fight back.

Our Time, based in Washington and planning to announce itself with summer publicity, wants to organize "our generation in one all-encompassing membership group" to contest decisions "that adversely affect our future without our knowledge or consent."

Amazing that an anti-AARP hasn't appeared before now. Or maybe not. Young adults are too busy for politics, too happy for outrage. The fog of decades obscures the traps set by baby boomers like me.

But this may be the best moment in almost half a century to yoke the power of youth to something besides Katy Perry album sales.

Eighteen percent of Americans between the ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. That's almost the highest rate for the group since the government started measuring after World War II. (It hit similar levels in the early 1980s but quickly dropped off.) The youth unemployment that ignited revolutions across the Middle East this year wasn't a whole lot higher.

It's not that young Americans aren't passionate about causes, says Our Time co-founder Matthew Segal. It's that they're divided among Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and voters' rights activists and so forth.

"We're co-opted into all these smaller subgroups at such an early age," says Segal, 25. "We don't realize that combined we have a greater ability to sway public opinion."

At Kenyon College in Ohio, Segal founded the Student Association for Voter Empowerment to boost the youth vote in 2008. He and Kenyon pal Jarrett Moreno conceived Our Time as a way to represent the interests of young adults all the time, not just during elections.

They pitched potential donors and came up with an impressive board that includes Rensi, TV producer Norman Lear, Viacom and CBS Corp. Vice Chair Shari Redstone and Alexander von Furstenberg, son of designer Diane von Furstenberg.

"I have been very worried not only about young people but our country at large because we've been making so many inept political decisions today about the future," says Rensi, 66, who retired from McDonald's in 1998.

"The baby boomers have been an unbelievable tidal wave of economic growth in this country, but they also suck up resources like crazy. My grandkids are growing up in an environment that certainly has a look and feel to it that can't be sustained."

For its part, AARP says it welcomes groups such as Our Time because "debate about the country's fiscal health and the impact on lifeline programs like Social Security and Medicare is too important to have anyone on the sidelines," according to spokeswoman Elly Spinweber. AARP favors Medicare and Social Security reforms, she said, "that would strengthen these programs in a way that's fair for current and future retirees."

Probably smartly, Our Time isn't focusing at first on getting boomers to pay a bigger share into government retirement schemes to avoid crushing debt on future taxpayers. It's concentrating on issues that matter to young people now: finding a job, getting health insurance, not getting ripped off by companies. It also wants to organize young adults as a consumer force, in part by getting them to "buy young" from companies started by their peers.

Eventually "we can become more of an advocacy organization" in Washington, Segal says. "But first we're an educational one."

He understands the generational injustice, however, noting that the supposedly brutal Republican budget offered this month spared Medicare pain for everybody 55 and over.

"If we're going to talk about shared sacrifice," he says, "then we truly need to call on all citizens to sacrifice, not just young Americans."

Our Time and its staff of four don't collect dues. Young people are used to free content, and they don't have any money anyway. Instead you sign up on the Web (ourtime.org) and stay in touch via Twitter, Facebook and email. Segal says he'll work with youth-focused groups such as Mobilize.org, which promotes community activism, and Young Invincibles, which pushed to get more young adults covered on their parents' health plans.

Maybe together they can help rekindle the youthful political energy that seemed to fade after the 2008 presidential election.

Hey young people. The constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances isn't just for your grandparents. And you've got some grievances.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.