As Congress grows older, calls for younger leadership persist

As it stands today, the 118th United States Congress is the third oldest since 1789—and growing older by the day.

The average age of the U.S. Senate is 64 years old, despite the national average age barely brushing 40 and younger generations emerging as eligible voters. Five senators will be 80 years or older by the end of 2023. 

However, old age is not stopping politicians from seeking reelection in 2024. 

Incumbent Politicians

81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose age and health has sparked much conversation in light of two freezing episodes over the summer, plans to serve through the end of his term. He is not up for reelection until 2026. 

Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who announced her reelection bid in September, would be 84 at the time of her reelection in 2024, marking her 20th term in office.

Once in power, incumbents have a variety of advantages over a newcomer looking to take their seat including seniority and experience, a financial advantage, name recognition, and the franking privilege, where Congress can send mail to their constituents for free.

These advantages make it natural for Congress to grow older.

Concerns over the age of leadership ignited once again upon the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress, in September at age 90. Having served decades as a public servant, Feinstein was set to serve the rest of her term through January 2025. Laphonza Butler, Feinstein’s replacement, is 44 years old. 

The discourse on age extends into the executive; if re-elected, President Joe Biden, who will be turning 81 years old this November, would be 86 by the end of his second term.

Thoughts of Voters

Voters have expressed concern about the age of those representing them. 

When asked whether the current age of political leaders such as the President, Congressional officials and Supreme Court justices is a problem, 78% of respondents said yes. 41% of respondents classified age as a major problem, 37% as a minor problem and 10% reported it was not at all a problem. 

Though age caps are unlikely to be proposed and passed by the members of Congress they would impact, voters do support age limits. One study found that 75% of Americans supported age caps for Congress. 

Young people also support people their age running for office.

“I think society often underestimates what young people are capable of. I would like to see more people my age in office,” shared one Cleveland State student. “We have a minimum age for a reason, and I think we should have a maximum, too. Though every person does not age the same, I can’t imagine my 80 year old grandparents in office. It just wouldn’t work.”

Dr. David R. Elkins, associate professor in the political science department at CSU, shared a statement with The Cauldron about the potential impact of age:

“There have been a couple of high-profile and widely covered health-related events associated with prominent members of both political parties, which have been defined as age-related maladies. Along with this has been a shift in the electorate that is now increasingly younger and more racially and ethnically diverse, which has brought into sharp relief the ages of some of our political elites.”

One example is House Representative Maxwell Frost, who was elected the first Gen Z member of Congress in 2022 at 25 years old to serve the 10th district of Florida. 

Representatives must be at least 25 years old and senators 30 years old to serve.

2024 Presidential Election

Elkins added that the element of age may play a unique role in the 2024 election cycle.

“Age doesn’t matter until it does,” began Elkins. “Age is currently a part of the political dialogue because both parties’ leading presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, are 80 and 77 years old, respectively.”

Trump continues to dominate projections of the Republican nomination. Approximately 61% of voters would choose Trump to receive the nomination, though he has chosen not to participate in the Republican debates and faces legal woes.

Other 2024 Republican candidates include Florida Gov.  Ron DeSantis at 45 years old, former U.S. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 51 years old, and newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy at 38 years old, the youngest in the line-up.

Democrats include author Marianne Williamson at 71 years old and Minnesota U.S. Representative Dean Phillips at 54 years old, both running against incumbent Biden. As noted, Biden is 80 years old.

Robert F. Kennedy, who announced his bid as an independent after originally being in the democratic line-up, is 69 years old.

“Age may be a factor in the forthcoming presidential election, but if the two leading presidential candidates are both the current and former presidents, age as a meaningful factor will be mitigated by the narrow age difference between the two men,” added Elkins.

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