When Nancy Pelosi announced last week that she would seek another term in the House of Representatives, the news was met with some incredulity.
Though some Democrats relished the prospect of two more years working alongside an experienced stateswoman — and a formidable fundraiser — many other political observers were less enthused.
This is largely because the Speaker Emerita, as Pelosi is now known, will be 84 when the next US elections take place and her decision comes at a time when ageing candidates have become a major issue in American politics.
The US is an outlier even in a world where the majority of lawmakers are much older than the broader populace.
Compared to peer countries, the US is especially dominated by older elected officials; one in five congresspeople is over the age of 70, making it one of the nation’s most elderly professions.
This trend has prompted calls for maximum term limits, mandatory retirement and even compulsory mental competency tests for those over 75. Last week, Republican congressman John James introduced legislation to bar those who would be 75 or older during their term from running for president, vice-president or a member of Congress.
“For democracy in general, it’s good to have turnover [of leaders],” says Daniel Stockemer, a University of Ottawa political studies professor who has researched age representation around the world, including the US.
That does not mean older members have to be excluded, he argues, but space should be freed up for new entrants instead of allowing “the same people running the show”.
The response to Pelosi’s declaration is the latest flashpoint in a larger debate about the growing gerontocracy in the US.
That announcement, from a member first elected in 1987, follows concerns about the health of older senators, including Republican Mitch McConnell, 81, and 90-year-old California senator Dianne Feinstein.
Octogenarian McConnell has recently frozen twice mid-sentence while speaking to reporters, prompting a consultation with a congressional physician and the senator’s “neurology team”.
Feinstein, the oldest member of the chamber, took an extended leave of absence this year following a bout of shingles. As a result, it made it difficult for Democrats, who have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, to push through appointees and legislation. Though Feinstein will step down in 2024, she has resisted calls to retire earlier amid long-running concerns over her memory.
Worries over his health have also plagued Joe Biden, the oldest president in US history, who at 80 years old is running for re-election in a likely rematch against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, 77. Both men have been urged by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, 76, to “stand aside” and make way for the next generation.
In August, a poll by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicated that three-quarters of the public think Biden is too old to serve as president for another term, including more than two-thirds of Democrats.
Yet unease over America’s gerontocracy is two-fold: while there are concerns over physical fitness and mental competency, a political class dominated by older people has other consequences.
Similar to other minority groups, the severe underrepresentation of young people likely means their interests are not being adequately addressed by policymakers, argue social scientists, which could contribute to political apathy among youth.
Legislatures should “somewhat resemble the population to make decisions that resemble what the overall population wants”, says Stockemer.
In the US, however, the median age of both the Senate and House has generally increased since the start of the century. This is in contrast to Germany, where the median age of the Bundestag has fallen since 2013, although trends have remained more or less flat in the past few years in the lower houses of British and French parliaments, according to data collected by researchers at the University of Ottawa.
The US House of Representatives is also older than its counterparts in other G7 countries and Russia, with a median age of 58 years. In the Senate, that figure jumps to 65, which means half of the senators are either at or beyond an age often associated with retirement. Considering these ages are calculated relative to the start of congressional sessions, those in office will be even older by the time they finish their terms.
With only around 7 per cent of Congress under the age of 40, this may not bode well for the representation and passage of laws on issues young Americans care about, such as greater climate action.
Elected officials behave differently during legislative debates according to their age and “presumably also when implementing policy”, says Jon Fiva, a Norwegian Business School professor who has studied how age, gender, class background and urban-rural representation in Norway’s parliament affects policy discussions.
Battle of the ages
Age is emerging as a new political faultline that can sometimes even trump party allegiance.
Simply being a Democrat or a Republican does not decide a person’s views. “It would matter if you have a young or an old Democrat, or a young or an old Republican,” says Fiva.
For example, a 2021 survey by Pew Research Center found that Generation Z adults — those born after 1996 — were more interested in addressing climate change than older generations. Even among Republicans, younger adults were less inclined to support more use of fossil fuels, with 44 per cent of the Gen Z cohort saying they supported more fracking compared to 74 per cent of baby boomers and older Republicans.
Another poll found that Gen Z Republicans diverge from their older counterparts on other issues too, such as acknowledging racial injustice and favouring more government involvement to solve issues rather than leaving them to businesses and individuals.
Though the gap between the age of lawmakers and the general population is especially stark in the US, the underrepresentation of youth in policymaking is an issue worldwide.
According to new data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of national parliaments, just 2.8 per cent of lawmakers globally are under 30. By comparison, roughly 18 per cent of the world’s population is between 18 and 29.
Many challenges block younger would-be lawmakers from entering office: the lack of political connections and endorsements, limited fundraising power, and statutory minimum age restrictions. To help young people surmount those obstacles, groups like Run for Something have recently popped up to offer training, mentorship and funding.
“Our government today is run like a gerontocracy,” says Juan Ramiro Sarmiento, 29, a spokesperson at Run For Something, which helps progressive candidates under 40 run for state and local elections. “So it is no surprise that the public policy that comes out of there benefits them.”
That means older politicians are not going to pass laws that prevent them from re-election, he says. Instead, a “critical mass” of young politicians is needed to bring change.
Brandon Sakbun, 27, who is running for mayor in Terre Haute, Indiana, after winning the Democratic nomination earlier this year, is optimistic that more voters will start to embrace younger candidates as they look for fresh ideas and solutions outside of the status quo.
“We’re faced with a different set of challenges that folks weren’t faced with [previously],” he says, adding that people from both parties can get behind the idea of “passing the baton to a new generation”.
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