Why Is Congress So Old?
Americans under the age of 40 are radically underrepresented in Congress
The incoming Congress is the most racially diverse ever. It has more women than ever. A record number of its members identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
And yet, still, Capitol Hill is boomer-town. Baby boomers make up nearly 70% of the incoming Congress, a radical overrepresentation of a generation that constitutes 21% of all Americans. And while Democrats can take most of the credit for Congress’ diversity along the lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation, they can’t lay any claim to age diversity: There will be more Republican millennials in the 117th Congress than Democratic ones. As of January, a measly 18 Democratic members of the House — out of 222 — will be 40 or younger. A whopping 335 members of Congress will be older than 55. Unless Jon Ossoff wins his senate runoff against David Perdue in Georgia, there will not be, nor has there ever been, a single millennial in the Senate.
The fact that Republican millennials outnumber Democratic ones in Congress is especially egregious given that millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 1996) are much more liberal than their boomer predecessors. It also suggests that the problem isn’t a lack of interest or talent on the left, but a dearth of opportunity within the Democratic Party. As of 2017, a quarter of millennials said they were “consistently liberal” and another third said they were “mostly liberal,” compared to just 2% who said they were “consistently conservative,” and one in 10 who were “mostly conservative.” Millennials are also the most educated generation in American history. There’s no shortage of young Democrats who are politically engaged and qualified for Congress — but few seats are opening up for them to fill, and many young Democrats say that they aren’t seeing an institutional commitment to the future from the party that claims a progressive, forward-looking mantle.
We would expect, of course, that Congress would be older than the general public, for a variety of reasons. The minimum age to serve is 25 for representatives and 30 for senators. Incumbents have an edge in elections, and so members typically stay on as they age, and Americans who make it to 65 live longer now than they did a few decades ago. And we should want — and very often do select — people with significant professional and life experience in national office. While there’s a strong argument that Congress should look a lot more like America when it comes to race, religion, sexual orientation, class, and gender, there are great reasons why Congress doesn’t and shouldn’t look exactly like America when it comes to age. An older-than-the-average-American Congress isn’t a problem; it’s probably a foregone conclusion.
But Congress also shouldn’t be a gerontocracy. While the term “millennial” is often bandied about as shorthand for “young,” the oldest millennials are 40, the youngest are 24, and most of us are in our thirties, which means nearly all of us are old enough to run for congressional seats. And yet there are more members of Congress over the age of 75 — members of the silent generation along with Joe Biden, the oldest president in history — than there are members under 40. And it’s not just that aging senators and representatives stay put — it’s that when they step down, they’re often replaced by other boomers.
Congress wasn’t always such a bastion of blue-hairs. A great many now-older current and former senators took their seats when they were in their thirties, including president-elect Biden. As baby boomers hit maturity, they also flooded into politics. In 1981, the first election in which nearly the entire boomer generation was eligible to vote (and when the first millennials were being born), the average age of Congress was 49.5. By the time Bill Clinton took office as the first boomer president in 1993, the average member of Congress was 53. By comparison, the average member of the incoming House of Representatives is nearly 58 — and that person is a spring chicken compared to the Senate, where the average member is nearly 64. Part of this is simple demographics: Until very recently, baby boomers were the largest generation in American history and a majority of American adults. It makes sense that as the largest segment of the population aged, Congress would age along with it.
But that makes less and less sense as millennials, who now outnumber boomers, get older.
Compare this senate to the one of the 100th Congress, which began in 1987, when boomers were between the ages of 23 and 41, roughly the same age as millennials are now. Five boomers were in the Senate by then, including Dan Quayle, who would become vice president two years later, and Al Gore, who would become vice president four years after that. (Tellingly, several members of that 1987 Senate remain in elected office nearly a quarter-century later, including Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, and Patrick Leahy). Young boomers weren’t represented in Congress in perfect alignment with their population, but they were better represented than millennials are today.
When boomers were young, their predecessors lengthened the ladder so they could begin to climb up. Now that boomers are at the top, they’ve reeled the ladder back up.
Ability and ideology certainly matter more to most voters than age, and the quality of a candidate should, of course, trump their demographic profile. But the ages of our members of Congress aren’t simply reflections of who voters determine is the most qualified. They reflect who the parties believe in, promote, and invest in. When adults 40 and under are left out, the issues that matter most to us are also neglected. Consider, for example, who is having babies in America — while the average age of first birth is going up and technology has prolonged childbearing years, it’s overwhelmingly not the fortysomethings (and certainly not the seventysomethings) who are nursing infants, struggling with the lack of paid leave for working parents, and trying to wrangle affordable childcare for very young kids. Or consider who carries the burden of student loan debt that cuts into every month’s income and forces so many to delay getting married, buying a house, moving out on their own, or even running for office — it’s overwhelmingly Americans under 40 who are paying off exorbitant educational debts, not the boomers who dominate Congress and were much less likely to have to borrow money to pay for school. The overwhelming majority of members of Congress haven’t experienced these challenges and aren’t part of a generation for which these issues are both pervasive and definitional. And as a result, the biggest problems young people face remain largely unaddressed.
Younger Americans are also more progressive and less religious than older ones. Imagine if more of the religious “nones” who increasingly make up the ranks of Americans (and who account for four in 10 millennials) found adequate representation in Congress, and what that would do to culture war fights over like LGBT rights and abortion. Imagine if the most racially diverse generation of adults in America saw itself reflected on Capitol Hill, and how that would shift the conversation on race, policing, and criminal justice from arm’s-length to profoundly intimate. Imagine if there were as many members of Congress from the nation’s least-insured generation — millennials — as there were members who were old enough to qualify for Medicare. What would our health care debates look like then?
I can already hear the objections from baby boomers: The problem isn’t that millennials are shut out by greedy boomers, it’s that millennials don’t vote and don’t run for office. But that’s not true. A record number of millennials ran for office this year, and huge numbers voted. This year, more than half of the youngest voters — the youngest millennials and those who are even younger, and who are typically the least likely to turn out — cast a ballot. But there are also complicated reasons, aside from laziness or disinterest, that explain why young people may be the least likely age cohort to get to their polling place, and are even less likely to throw their hat in the ring to run. Young people are more likely than older ones to be balancing a variety of obligations, including work, childcare, and school, and they are more likely to be in the kind of inflexible, insecure, and poorly-compensated jobs that don’t allow time off to go vote.
Americans under 40 are also much less likely to be white than baby boomers are, which means millennials and Gen Zers are harder-hit by voter suppression efforts targeted at Blacks and Latinos. And when it comes to running for office, millennials are much less secure than boomers were when they were our age. We are less likely to own a house, more likely to be struggling with student loan debt, and more likely than any previous generation of Americans to be living with our parents. We have less wealth to fall back on, which means we have less of an ability to quit our jobs so that we can run for office; we have less in the bank to cash out in order to fund a political campaign. We’re less likely to be married, and if we are married or partnered, chances are that both partners work outside the home, which means there isn’t a built-in full-time domestic support system for the politically ambitious partner (and let’s be honest, the politically ambitious husband). There are real barriers to millennials running for office. And while some organizations have set out to address them, the age gap in elected office has not gotten the attention and resources it deserves from the Democratic Party.
There are significant benefits to electing seasoned and experienced politicians. But there are big downsides to a political system that amounts to rule by the elderly. Joe Biden could very well be an incredibly effective president because he spent four decades of his life as a dealmaker in the Senate and then in the White House. He learned not just the ropes, but the subtler skills of legislative give-and-take. But if Democrats want to spend the next few decades actually getting stuff done, they have to develop their party’s next generation of political talent — and that means empowering young candidates and letting them lead the party, and the country, into the future.