Opinion & Blogs

Generational gap still exists between young voters and politicians

Next week, I will be turning 25 years old. That’s the minimum age requirement for someone to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. I have no intention of doing that, but I wonder if others who are approaching that milestone age may seriously consider running for office. 

Several weeks ago tens of thousands of young people across the nation took to the streets in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting to march for what they believe in. It was the real beginning of the nation’s youth taking hold of the political and sociological world that they have grown up in. 

But it was more than just students expressing themselves. They weren’t just marching because of guns. They weren’t just marching because they believe their schools can be safer. They were marching because they don’t feel like they are being properly represented by their elected representatives. 

In one very important area, they really aren’t. That area is not related at all to political party affiliation or any kind of ideology. 

It’s about age. 

Millennials, those who were born between 1982 and 2000, surpassed baby boomers as the largest group of eligible voters in the country in 2015. They are expected to overtake them in general population next year, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Yet baby boomers still control Congress. A fascinating 2016 report from Bloomberg News found that if the House of Representatives were proportionally divided so that each age group was represented based on their population, there would be 148 members who were baby boomers and 97 members who were millennials. In the current House, there are 270 baby boomers and only five millennials. In essence, millennials should control about 25 percent of the chamber, but in actuality, baby boomers outnumber millennials in the House by more than 50-to-1. 

Already one of the oldest Congresses in history, the current average age of a House representative is 57 and the average age of a U.S. senator is 61. I did some digging and discovered that there are 46 current members of the House who were first elected before I was born. That’s not including former Rochester-area Rep. Louise Slaughter, who died last month while still in office as the oldest member of Congress. She was born in 1929 and had served since 1987. 

Should Democrats retake control of the House in this fall’s midterm elections, it’s likely that Nancy Pelosi will once again become speaker — the third most powerful person in the country — two months before her 79th birthday. 

In the Senate, there are currently 12 members who have been serving longer than I’ve been alive, and many others began work in public service long before that. The two current leaders — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — both began their political careers respectively as a Kentucky judge and New York state assemblyman in the mid-1970s.

Such a generation gap among our federal lawmakers isn’t expected to close anytime soon, even as older generations continue to shrink and millennials expand. According to 2013 research from First Person Politics, millennials aren’t expected to compose a majority of the House of Representatives until around 2035, and they won’t make up a Senate majority until between 2036 and 2044. I will be well into my 40s and 50s by then. 

It’s not just Congress where the millennial group isn’t being represented, either. In the most recent presidential election, both major party nominees were born as the guns of World War II had barely been silenced, and both were prominent public figures in an era that our parents identify with. Indeed, had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and gone on to serve two terms in office, my older brother, who was born in 1990, would be in his mid 30s having only lived under one president who was neither a Clinton or Bush. 

In addition, some of the top names floated as potential presidential candidates in 2020 ― Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden ― will all be in their 70s and approaching 80 when that time comes. 

Granted, it will take time for millennials to make their way into power. Hardly anyone is elected to a congressional seat near the age of 25. But at the same time, the oldest millennials are already eligible to run for president. Regardless, it seems almost ludicrous that the largest age group in the country will still have to wait nearly another two decades before they make up a good portion of the national government. 

Michael Barone, a senior political analyst for the conservative publication Washington Examiner, wrote last month in Real Clear Politics that “not since James Monroe left the presidency in 1825, 48 years after he fought in the Battle of Princeton, has America had political leadership with careers running so far back in the past.” 

While that specific conclusion may be up for interpretation, it certainly feels that way for us soon-to-be 25-year-olds. We’re definitely not interested in waiting the length of a generation before our own cohort has a real chance to make our mark in the political world. 

But if the new interest and enthusiasm that we saw from young people last month can continue to grow, maybe we won’t have to wait as long as we think.

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