It was September 2019, the Democratic primaries were really starting to heat up, and Joe Biden was struggling to keep it together. In a debate that month, he was asked about racial inequality in schools, and his advice to parents was, charitably, puzzling. “Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. Make sure kids hear words.” At 78, he became the oldest president: older than Ronald Reagan was when he left office and older than all of his living predecessors besides Jimmy Carter.
But compared to many in Congress, he looks like a tiny little baby. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80, as is Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, while Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 81. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley, as well as Alaska’s lone representative Don Young, are all 87. (In December, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported that, according to sources, Feinstein’s “short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have.”) These people are not even young enough to be baby-boomers. They are part of the Silent Generation.
If you’re starting to get the feeling that the country is governed as a gerontocracy, you are correct. People over 50 make up 34 percent of the U.S. population, but 52 percent of the electorate, according to Pew. And it’s not only political power that baby-boomers and the Silent Generation have a tight grip on: Americans over 55 own two-thirds of the wealth in this country.
The power imbalance between the old and young is to some extent rooted in demographic changes. There are simply more old people than there used to be. (The 2010 census reported that the number of Americans over 45 had increased by almost 25 million since the 2000.) People are living longer — the current generation of late-middle-aged and post-retirement Americans are called baby-boomers for a reason.
Still, that doesn’t entirely explain the political situation: It’s not like young people simply hate to vote and run for office. “[It] is not an issue of apathy,” said Abby Kiesa, the deputy director of the Center for Information & Research Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “We don’t have any systems that really assure that young people, regardless of their Zip Code, regardless of their neighborhood or family background, learn about how to register to vote and vote.”
Young people face more barriers when it comes to running for office than old people do. “There is a finite amount of people who can credibly run for Congress,” said Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that supports people under 40 running for political office. “You need the money, the political skills, the network … When you are older, your network has more money.” Voters in national elections skew older, and the more local the election gets, the older the voter tends to be. In a municipal election, the median voter age is 57. Ross Morales Rocketto, the organization’s other co-founder, said their candidates said “the area of identity where the most folks said that they faced discrimination was age,” despite heavy representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
Boomers came to hold a disproportionate amount of power in this country because “they were able to experience uniquely positive economic circumstances in their youth,” explained Kevin Munger, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University who is currently writing a book about generational conflict. “They’ve also been able to start accumulating wealth early in their life cycles.” Boomers, for the most part, had more economic opportunity not only than their parents’ generation, but also more than their children, largely millennials, who have faced slower wage growth and higher barriers to homeownership and family formation.
Munger also noted that, unlike the generations that came before them, boomers “have been able to take advantage of what some people call ‘the democratization of old age,’ or simply, the increased longevity due to better nutrition, better medicine, etc.”
To recap: The older you are, the more money and resources you most likely have, which you need to run for political office. When you run for office, you specifically target voters in your age range since they will be more likely to vote for you. And, as both Munger and Tim Hogan, former campaign staffer for Amy Klobuchar and Hillary Clinton, emphasized, incumbents have a significant advantage when it comes to elections, so retaining power is much easier than attaining it.
This isn’t happening everywhere. Contemporary gerontocracy, it appears, is a distinctly American problem. “If you look at other countries, they’re not similarly controlled by older politicians. I think that the explanation here is the two-party system,” Munger said. “[A multiparty system gets] young people involved in politics, voting, organizing, running things, organizational politics, [which] means that they are able to start accumulating institutional power.” The two parties of the United States, on the other hand, are staunchly controlled by older generations.
Before things get better, they will get worse. “We have not yet reached the peak of boomer culture. We’re going to see the highest number of people turning 65 in U.S. history in 2023,” Munger said. “The long-run perspective is good. The long run is actually 20, 30 years. Generational replacement will happen.” In other words, things will change, but only after the baby-boomer generation literally dies.
Not having enough millennials and Gen-Zers, or even Gen-Xers, at the table isn’t only worrisome because it’s unfair or because of senility concerns. It threatens the very future of the nation. Because a gerontocratic government is a government that doesn’t represent all its citizens; it’s a government that doesn’t feel very democratic at all. According to a Pew survey, in 2018, the most common age for all Americans was 27, while the most common age for white Americans was an astounding 58. Overrepresentation of older folks both in Congress and the voter registries points to just how overrepresented white interests are in the U.S. Beyond age, the rules we have in place — from gerrymandering to Citizens United to the existence of the electoral college and U.S. Senate — ensure that the government does not accurately represent the increasingly racially diverse populace. (If our lawmakers were in touch with what the people actually wanted, the minimum wage would be $15/hour already.)
Our older legislators might have a different understanding of some of the biggest issues facing the country and different priorities than younger generations. This is most apparent when it comes to climate change — an issue young people are statistically more likely to be concerned about. Is it ageist to suggest that an 87-year-old might have a harder time proposing good policies about how to regulate social media than someone 40 years their junior? No more than it would be to suggest that a teenager would most likely do a better job than me, a millennial, at making a TikTok. “The ability to regulate the internet is coming. It’s increasingly obvious that this is one of the biggest issues in society,” Munger said. “And the fact is, many [older members of Congress] have people print out their emails. They’re not close to understanding anything about what’s going on there.”
This isn’t to say that older folks are incapable of governing a world that is quickly changing on account of their age — experience can be and often is an asset. A reason that Ted Cruz’s repeated attempts to add a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress is such a bad idea is because it seeks to completely erase institutional knowledge from an entire branch of government. There surely has got to be a way to bring more people under the age of 50 into elected office without sacrificing the very real wisdom that (many of) our elders offer.
The most obvious way to do this would be to diversify our voter ranks by passing laws that make voting more accessible to everybody, and young people in particular, who tend to move around more than older generations. (Since young people are statistically more ethnically diverse than older folks, passing laws that make voting easier for younger folks would also benefit POC communities across the board.) “If we want to change anything about who participates in democracy,” Kiesa said, “young people [need to see civic] opportunities that they find meaningful, accessible, and even visible. Democratic participation is learned. Whatever happens with early generations is going to sustain us for decades to come.”