Why American politicians are so old


ATLANTA, GEORGIA – JUNE 27: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. President Biden and former President Trump are facing off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

By now, you may have heard the news that President Joe Biden is old — so old that even some Democrats are calling on him to drop out of the presidential race.

But Biden, of course, is not the only old high-ranking American politician. His main opponent, Donald Trump, is 78, and the median age in the US Senate is over 65 years old. In fact, American politicians have aged so much that the United States has been dubbed a gerontocracy — a system of government where power is concentrated among the elderly.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with older people holding positions of power. If voters want experienced officials to lead the country, then the chances are that those officials will skew older than the average worker. What is concerning, however, is just how over-represented older Americans are in national politics, and how that could lead to a political class that’s out of touch with the many challenges that younger people face.

That concern is only compounded when politicians share little information about their health. The late Dianne Feinstein, for example, spent the last few years of her life clinging to her Senate seat, even as she approached 90, despite serious concerns about her mental fitness and clear signs of cognitive decline, including memory loss. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, 82, appeared to freeze in multiple public appearances last year before eventually announcing that he plans to step down from his role. And more recently, Biden’s missteps and disastrous debate performance have sparked a panic about whether the 81-year-old president is actually capable of campaigning, let alone executing his official duties.

A lot of Americans are frustrated with the fact that the choices they have for president in the last few election cycles have been older candidates — so old that each would have been the oldest president in history. (Biden is the oldest president to date; Trump, if elected, would break that record by the end of his term.) 

But part of the reason that voters seem to have so few choices is because one of the major pipelines to the presidency is Congress, which itself has been getting older. In fact, the current Congress is the oldest in American history.

That there are so many aging politicians has prompted many to call for simple solutions, including age limits

But having so many older politicians is a symptom of deeper problems with our democracy, which won’t be addressed by simply banning older people from running for public office. Democracies should be representative, and having younger people underrepresented among lawmakers can lead to a government that fails to adapt to a changing world. 

Why are American politicians so old?

The most straightforward explanation for why America’s elected representatives have been getting older is simply that the American population as a whole has, too. The median age in the United States is now 39, according to the US Census Bureau, up from 30 in 1980, and baby boomers are staying in the workforce much longer than earlier generations. 

While that might explain why elected officials are getting older, it doesn’t necessarily explain cases like Feinstein’s or McConnell’s or Biden’s — people serving into their 80s while battling public concerns about their health — or why roughly a quarter of Congress is made up of members who are over 70. 

That’s where signs of an eroding democracy start to emerge. 

Because if voters want to elect an 80-year-old, they should have the right to do so; having older politicians would be the outcome of a democratic process. In reality, many Americans don’t actually have that much of a choice. 

That’s because there are systemic barriers to having any real competition, in most cases allowing incumbent members of Congress to stay in power as long as they please. (Biden, after all, served in the Senate for 36 years before becoming vice president in 2009.) 

Over the past century, congressional elections have been getting less and less competitive. And in recent years, the vast majority of House races have been won by a 10-point margin or higher. In 2018, for example, only 44 out of the 435 congressional districts were considered toss-ups — that is, decided within a 5-point margin — according to the advocacy group FairVote. In 2022, it was even lower, with 36 House elections being considered competitive. 

As competition declined, the average age of congressional members rose. In 1981, for example, the median age of a US senator was 52; in 2022, it was 65. 

There are two main reasons why House elections are so uncompetitive: polarization and gerrymandering. As Americans became more polarized, they became more loyal to their political parties. That meant that fewer and fewer Americans split their tickets — voting for, say, a Democratic presidential candidate while also voting for a Republican candidate for the House or Senate — making congressional districts safer during a general election. And more importantly, partisan gerrymandering, where lawmakers draw up congressional districts to benefit one party, has made competitive elections all the more rare.

That means that most congressional elections are essentially decided by the primaries. Once someone wins a primary in a very safe Democratic or Republican district, for example, the general election becomes nothing more than a formality. But there’s another roadblock to real competition during the primaries as well, one that leads to politicians serving longer tenures: the power of incumbency

Incumbents tend to have a sizable advantage over their challengers for various reasons, including name recognition, party support, and campaign cash. In fact, while you might hear of some surprising upsets from time to time — like in 2018, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who was 29 at the time, defeated Joe Crowley, who had served in Congress for two decades — it’s actually extraordinarily rare for incumbents to lose their primaries. According to the Brookings Institution, only a handful of incumbents lose their primaries each cycle. 

Massachusetts is one example of a state whose lawmakers notoriously face little competition: In 2022, not one of its incumbent members of the US House of Representatives faced a primary challenger.

The result of a system like this is that incumbents can hold onto their seats for decades — or until they choose to retire. That means that while voters technically can vote for whomever they want, they have very little say in who appears on their ballots and whether there are any serious alternatives to choose from.

The solution isn’t age limits. It’s giving voters more choice.

Politicians in the United States are old by design. From campaign financing to gerrymandering to third parties having to face often insurmountable hurdles to appear on a ballot, incumbent politicians can essentially stay in office as long as they like.

Polls show that most Americans support imposing age limits on federal lawmakers, and there have been some efforts in recent years to try to implement them. But while age limits would certainly remove the possibility of having too many older people in office, they also have many problems: For starters, they’re discriminatory, barring people from participating in certain aspects of democracy simply because of their characteristics. People also don’t age uniformly, and while one person might start showing signs of cognitive decline in their 70s, another person might be perfectly capable of serving in office well into their 80s. Deciding an age cutoff based on scientific averages of physical and mental health can also be relatively arbitrary, especially with medical treatment getting better and life expectancies getting longer over time.

The second problem with age limits is that they do not address the underlying problem, which is that there’s very little competition in elections.

That’s why efforts should largely focus on making elections fairer and more competitive: By making incumbency less of a guarantee that a candidate will win an election, turnover in Congress and elsewhere will be higher, and it will be more possible for younger people to get elected. That would help create a reality where elected officials are more representative of their constituencies. 

To get there, lawmakers should focus on democratic reforms that include limiting partisan gerrymandering, making it more affordable to run for office, giving deep-pocketed donors less influence, and improving ballot access. 

Those technical reforms might not immediately make Congress younger, and certainly won’t solve the current crisis of confidence faced by Biden, but they would make this era of gerontocracy less likely to happen again. 

They would also give voters a chance to elect whomever they want — be it a young up-and-comer or a retiree looking to jump back into the workforce by serving their country in public office.

That’s ultimately what voters should have: choice.

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