From modest beginnings, Modern Maturity, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), grew into the largest average circulation magazine in the nation—without being available on newsstands. The Time -sized publication, a glossy bimonthly, has been sent through the mail to some 23 million households that included over 33 million AARP members who received it as part of their annual dues.
The rise of Modern Maturity coincided with the growth of AARP, which could trace its roots to a meeting in a Washington, D.C. hotel of its three founding directors, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, who came up with the idea for the organization, and two of her associates, Grace Hatfield and Ernest Giddings. According to minutes of that meeting, it was decided to incorporate a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization in Washington, D.C., on July l, 1958. At the time, Andrus was a 72-year-old California educator and activist who earlier had also founded the National Retired Teachers Association.
The start-up money for the organization came from a young Poughkeepsie, New York, insurance broker, Leonard Davis, whom Andrus had persuaded to come to her house in Ojai, California, while he was on a trip to Disneyland with his family. Davis and Andrus sat at her kitchen table discussing her plans for AARP while she showed him a mock-up of the proposed magazine, Modern Maturity. "There was contagious excitement in flipping through those pages," noted an AARP article on the group's history. "Around her kitchen table final copy was written for the magazine." Andrus asked Davis for help in raising the seed money, and the go-getting Davis put up $50,000 to start the ball rolling. He also persuaded Continental Casualty of Chicago to offer insurance for the AARP group. At the time, most insurers would not sell insurance to people over the age of 65, but Davis saw the opportunity to open doors to a vast new market.
The first issue of Modern Maturity was sent in late 1958 to members of Andrus's other organization, the National Retired Teachers Association—members were asked to join AARP for $2 a year. That sum would include benefits associated with membership as well as an annual subscription to Modern Maturity. The broad goals of the magazine were "to create a showcase for the achievements of our people; to build many bridges between the needs and the powers that can answer those needs; to open the door to all the various human adventures we can picture for you; and to serve as a forum for the discussion of subjects of interest to retired persons." The first mass mailing was a marketing hit and membership in AARP grew rapidly, along with readership in Modern Maturity. By the time Andrus died in 1967, the circulation was well over one million readers. By the late 1990s, AARP had become a powerhouse lobbying organization in Washington, its group health insurance program had become the biggest in the nation, and its pharmacy services the second largest mail-order drug firm.
From the $2 initial dues for membership, years later the fee rose to $8 a year, which included a $2.40 price for Modern Maturity, and 85¢ for the AARP Bulletin newsletter. Although the group's name contained the phrase "Retired Persons," membership was open to anyone 50 or over, and many who joined were not retired. From its meager beginnings, AARP—by the end of the twentieth century—had become a huge nonprofit industry with an annual budget of over $200 million, and boasted businesses generating a cash flow of over $10 billion that netted some $100 million. Advertising in AARP's publications alone produced more than $30 million. In a 1988 story on AARP, Money magazine correspondents reported: "We discovered a loosely knit and paradoxical group, neither as politically threatening as it is often perceived nor as benign as it portrays itself to members … It is an undeniably effective lobby—and yet its membership is so fragmented and random that it lacks a specific shared interest or philosophy." Its lobbying influence on behalf of Medicare and other issues affecting the elderly, combined with a grass-roots force of millions of people behind it, made AARP one of the most potent lobbying forces in Washington.
The reader demographics of Modern Maturity in 1997 showed a population that was moderately well-off with a median household income of $34,408, nearly two-thirds of its audience having attended or graduated from college, and most owning their own home. Women outnumbered men nearly two-to-one and the median age was 65.2 years.
A glance at the magazine shows why it achieved widespread acceptance, ranking with other best-selling magazines of the day. It put on a bright face in the late 1990s, a makeover from an earlier staid image. Its popular style appealed to a wide audience, not just the elderly. It covered topical subjects in well-edited articles. For example, the final issue of 1997 featured popular singer Tony Bennett on a glitzy, full-color cover. "Red Hot and Cool—Tony Bennett: Singing from the Heart," shouted the headline. In a box below the image of Bennett (dressed to kill in a tan suit and open white shirt) was a teaser focusing on a hot health topic: "Managed Care, Can We Learn to Love It?" Inside, articles featured an interview with national television newsman Sam Donaldson, a travel piece about offbeat beaches, a pictorial on notable figures who had turned 50 called "The Big Five Oh," tips for consumers, food and drink recipes, and a plethora of advertisements ranging from cold and flu medicines to automobiles and promotions for AARP services such as insurance, credit cards, and pharmacy service.
In short, Modern Maturity has matured into a widely read magazine and a pioneering influence on the American scene in the last part of the twentieth century because of the foresight of an activist woman, Ethel Andrus, who refused to be considered elderly, and who had the vision to capture an audience of Americans that was growing older.
American Association of Retired Persons. "The Story of AARP."Washington, D.C., American Association of Retired Persons, 1971.
Schurenberg, Eric, and Lani Luciano. "Special Report: The Empire Called AARP." Money. October 1, 1988.