On average, members of Congress are old and getting older. The average age has been climbing steadily since the early 1980s. In fact, Congress today is older than it’s ever been. Across both chambers, the median age of the 118th Congress is 59 years old. The median Senator is 65 years old, and the median House member is about 58. For nearly 8 decades, the median age of Senators never exceeded 60 years old, and the median representative never exceeded 55.
Of course, none of this may bother you. After all, the country is aging, people live longer today, and members of Congress simply reflect that trend. Furthermore, age does not appear to trouble voters.
For example, the Senate major leader, Chuck Schumer, is 72 and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, is 81. California elected Democrat Diana Feinstein, currently the oldest sitting Senator at age 89, to a six year term in 2018. Close behind is Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa. In 2022, Grassley won an eighth term and will be in his mid-90s if he serves out the term.
At 80, Nancy Pelosi became the oldest representative to be elected as House Speaker in 2021. Likewise, this year, at 80, President Joe Biden became the oldest president to announce a reelection campaign.
Does it matter?
Other imbalances in the makeup of Congress – race, gender, socioeconomic status – suggest age is consequential. Aging members, for example, are more likely to be focused on issues important to older Americans – such as retirement, Medicare, and prescription drugs. And they are less responsive to the concerns of younger voters.
Thus, like other characteristics, age impacts representation – in this case under-representation of youth politics.
The age imbalance can be disheartening for younger people as well. They are unlikely to identify with 70-year old plus political figures – regardless of stature and past performance. They do not see young people in elected offices. And they grow frustrated when another elderly politician easily wins reelection.
Consider the counterfactual. What if the federal legislature skewed young – and over the past 40 years the average age reduced by 15 years – to say 35 years old. The vibe a lot like the tech sector, young, exciting opportunities, cutting edge ideas, and a strong confidence to solve problems.
Older folks now feel out-of-touch, not wanted, and a poor fit for the required tasks. By contrast, younger people fit right in and recognize their peers as in control and pushing an agenda forward.
Our politics are senior driven. Young people rightly perceive themselves as shut out and insignificant.
This is an important yet neglected reason why young people do not turn out in large numbers on Election Day or participate in political activities generally.
Most of our key political leaders are from the boomer and the silent generations, which have dominated American politics for decades.
Isn’t it about time for them to step down?
There are no mandatory retirement ages nor significant incentives for politicians to retire. Perhaps there should be.
But until that happens, predictably, political figures will stay, reluctant to relinquish power and influence.
In what other professions do 70 and 80 year old people dominate? Not many, and likely none are as important as making laws and leading a nation.
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