Opinion: Our gerontocracy impedes fresh ideas
Our political leaders are old, and many are elderly. Dianne Feinstein is currently the oldest sitting senator at age 90. She has experienced a string of serious health issues but remains committed to serving out her term. At 88, Sen. Chuck Grassley recently won an eighth term that will end when he reaches his mid-90s.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is 72, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 81. McConnell recently froze involuntarily at two public events prompting questions about his fitness for office.
At 80, Nancy Pelosi became the oldest representative elected as House speaker. Her House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, was 83, and the majority whip, Jim Clyburn, 82. Now at 83, Pelosi has declared that she will again seek reelection.
Joe Biden became the oldest president, at 77. At 80, Biden became the oldest president to announce a reelection campaign. His chief Republican rival, Donald Trump, is 77.
Congress is older than it has ever been. The median senator age is 65, and the median House member age is 58.
Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran are 64 and 69, respectively. Three Kansas House members are notably younger: Reps. Tracey Mann and Sharice Davids are in their 40s, and Jake LaTurner is a mere 35.
State politicians are aging too. The average age of Statehouse members is 56. In some states, like New Hampshire, the average is much higher, at 66. In Kansas it’s 58.
For sitting governors, the average age is 58. Eleven governors, including Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, are at least 70. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is the oldest, at 77.
No other occupation skews this old nor produces so many senior leaders. We seem to have a gerontocracy. Millennials are the largest generation by population but one of the smallest groups in Congress.
None of this may bother you. People are living and working longer; they are more active and healthier than in past generations.
Yet age impacts representation.
Aging politicians are more focused on issues important to older Americans, such as Social Security and Medicare. And this comes at the expense of issues that younger Americans care about.
Very few young people even run for office. In 2018, several Kansas teenagers campaigned for governor. The result was swift passage of minimum age limits for the state’s highest office.
More typically, young people grow frustrated by our graying institutions and disengage politically, which starts a self-perpetuating cycle. If older legislators know young people are unlikely to vote, they are less likely to push issues important to young people.
Maximum age requirements are a potential solution. Kansas, for example, requires judges to retire at age 75.
A recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed 73% of Americans support maximum age limits for elected offices. A quarter said 60 years old should be the maximum, nearly 40% said 70, and 23% preferred 80. Most Democrats and Republicans supported limits, as did the youngest and oldest cohorts.
Americans do appreciate older, seasoned lawmakers. And they know that age is an imperfect proxy for health and ability. But they also know that older politicians stay too long, sacrificing younger generations who bring fresh ideas and energy.
Sen. Mitt Romney’s recent retirement announcement shows that aging politicians will pass the torch. Senior Sens. Ben Cardin, Tom Carper and Debbie Stabenow decided to retire as well.
It’s a start.
–Mark Joslyn is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.