young people of color sitting and talking through a megaphone to a rally

Time for a (Generational) Change?

Most of the top elected officials in Washington are old. Much older than the average age of their constituents. Just take a look: Chuck Schumer 71, Joe Biden 79, Mitch McConnell 80, and Nancy Pelosi 82. Although Americans continue to vote for older politicians, in public opinion polls, they say they want younger representation.

According to data collected by CNN, the 117th Congress is the oldest, on average, of any Congress in two decades. The average age of current senators is 64, and the average age of house members is 58. While that may not seem all that old, the average age of Americans according to the 2020 Census was 39.

Currently, the U.S. has minimum age limits to become an elected official — for instance, you have to be at least 35 to be elected President. But there are no maximum age limits for elected officials nor mandatory retirement ages. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond holds the record for oldest sitting Senator – he retired after turning 100 and died a few months later.

However, Americans seem ready for all this to change. A YouGov Poll this year found 58% of Americans say there should be a maximum age limit for elected officials. And look at this: While nearly every issue nowadays has a partisan split, Americans across the political spectrum agree there should be age limits for elected officials. But, there is a split on what that age limit should be: 24% say 60 years old, 39% say 70, 23% say 80, and 5% say 90. 

Analysis from YouGov found that if senators over 60 were barred from holding office, 71% of current senators would be ineligible to serve. If applied to the Presidency, that age limit would make President Biden and former President Trump ineligible to serve. So, if the majority of current national elected officials were ineligible for office, whom would Americans vote for to replace them?

Young people say they’re looking for a generational change. For instance, a 2018 poll conducted by AP-NORC and MTV found 79% of Americans ages 15 to 34 say leaders from their generation would do a better job running the country.

One political action committee (PAC), The Next 50, is pushing young Democrats to run for office as a result. It recently announced a national campaign to support 50 millennial and Gen Z candidates under the age of 45 ahead of the midterms.

Similarly, Rep. Elise Stefanik R-NY, the third-ranking Republican in the House has recruited young GOP women for Congressional races in 2022. Stefanik is the founder of Elevated PAC and has endorsed candidates such as Karoline Leavitt who is in her early 20s.

But, can younger candidates really win elections?

The first barrier for many is money. That’s where PACs like The Next 50 and Elevate can help. Older candidates and those who’ve previously held office tend to have stronger establishment ties and more access to campaign cash.

Still, money only gets you so far. If young people want younger representation in office, they’ll need to vote in numbers like their older relatives. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans between 18 and 29 are the least likely to vote in elections, while those 45 and over are the most likely to vote.

Voting Rates by Age

In the last presidential election, 57% of voters 18-34 cast their ballots, up from 49% in 2016 according to census data. Encouraging news until you see this: 74% of those 65 and older voted in 2020.

Why does voting age matter? Political science research conducted at Emory University found that voters typically prefer candidates “who are closest to themselves in age.” Since older Americans are more likely to vote, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by our “Senior Citizen Senate.”

But, the numbers don’t lie. Young people’s votes could make a lot of difference. Gen Z is the largest generation in American history, comprising 27% of the U.S. population. It is also the most ethnically diverse generation. If they’d just vote….

Even though Americans tell pollsters they want younger elected officials, they don’t always follow through at the ballot box. Recently, Rep. Madison Cawthorn R-NC, a first-term 27-year-old GOP congressman, lost his primary to a 61-year-old. Then again, he was plagued by scandals and the average age in the district is about 20% older than the rest of North Carolina. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez D-NY, is 32, has a large social media presence, and seems to excite young Democratic voters. Yet, she is rated one of the least effective members of Congress. Out of 240 Democrats in Congress, AOC ranked 230th for legislative effectiveness according to a new survey from the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Americans are asking for a lot: young and impactful leaders. In some cases, we’re getting just that. Sen. Tammy Duckworth D-IL, is a 54-year-old Democrat who was ranked as the fifth most effective Democratic Senator in the 116th Congress by the Center for Effective Lawmaking. And, while Duckworth is more than two decades older than AOC, she is about 10 years younger than the average Senator. 

In the Republican Party, Stefanik, who is 38, is ranked among the top 10 most effective Republican lawmakers and the most effective Republican for commerce policy. 

While these youthful politicians are relatively few and far between, they do exist. Their success in politics opens up more doors to young individuals who want to run for office. As opportunities and chances for financial assistance increase, and the American electorate gets younger on average, the demographics of elected officials may begin to shift and better reflect what Americans want – and look like – at least age-wise.

But, if young Americans want to see themselves reflected in their political leaders, they’ll need to get busy voting in numbers like their grandparents.

This post was written by Marist Poll Media Team student Greta Stuckey.