Congress is Older Than Ever Before. Why Does This Matter?

After an activity on adultism and ageism, students read about and discuss why the U.S. Congress has become older than ever, what impact that might have, and how young people could get more involved.

street near capitol hill

Photo by Chris Grafton on Unsplash

Pre-Reading Activity: Adultism and Ageism

Explain to students that today’s lesson brings up the issues of adultism and ageism. Elicit, or explain, that adultism is discrimination against young people as a group. Ageism is discrimination based on age, primarily against the elderly. 

Refer to a prepared T-chart with “Adultism” written on one side and “Ageism” written on the other.

In a go-round or popcorn style, have students first provide examples of adultism. Chart as they share. Then have them provide examples of ageism. Again, chart as they share.

Once the chart is complete, invite students to share their takeaways, what they’ve noticed, and  what they wonder about related to this issue. 

Thank students for sharing and invite them to keep these examples in mind during this two-part lesson exploring how our political leaders have gotten older – and what impact this might have.

Reading One: Congress is Older Than Ever Before. Why?

A lot has been made about the age of the candidates of the major political parties in the upcoming presidential election. At 81, current president and candidate for the Democratic Party Joe Biden, is the oldest sitting president in U.S. history. Meanwhile, the candidate for the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump, would be the second oldest president in the country’s history at 78 years old. A historically-old executive branch, however, is not the only facet of government that has grown notably more seasoned than before.

Writing for FiveThirtyEight in April 2023, senior elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley noted that the U.S. Congress today is older than it has ever been before. Skelley wrote:

Older members of Congress are notorious for their lack of familiarity with modern technology. Late last month, at least three different representatives in a hearing on TikTok called the popular app “Tic Tac,” a breath mint available in many store checkout lines. This is only the latest in a long line of amusing tech-related congressional miscues: Back in 2006, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens described the internet as “a series of tubes,” and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer copped to his struggles when in 2022 he held up his flip phone and said he was “not very tech-oriented” during a speech on the Senate floor.

Don’t expect such unfamiliarity to change anytime soon: As it turns out, Congress today is older than it’s ever been. Across all senators and representatives, the median age of the 118th Congress is 59 years old. The median senator is 65 years old, a record high; the median representative is about 58, for the fourth Congress in a row. Congress has notably aged since 2001: From 1919 to 1999, the median senator never eclipsed 60 years old and the median representative never surpassed 55.   



Throughout the history of the United States, members of Congress have always been older on average than the general public. Factors contributing to this include minimum age requirements for candidates to run for office outlined in the Constitution (members of the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old when taking office, while members of the Senate must be at least 30 years old). In recent decades, members of Congress have also become more likely to seek re-election and stay in office longer than in the past.

In a separate article for FiveThirtyEight, published in September 2023, senior political reporter Monica Potts summarized some of the additional factors contributing to why our Representatives and Senators today are older than in years past. Potts wrote:

There are a few factors contributing to our aging politics, and they provide a hint as to why voters are choosing older candidates despite saying in polls that they would prefer younger ones. The first is simple demographics. Older voters are more likely to vote and are more likely to choose candidates closer to their age. Younger generations of voters didn’t overtake the Baby Boom generation until 2018. Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation, but the youngest millennials, at age 25, are just now old enough to qualify to run for federal office….

That leaves Baby Boomers overrepresented in Congress, taking almost half the positions. And it’s also difficult to force older generations to let go of power if they don’t want to step down. There’s a strong incumbency bias for federal office, and the current structure of Congress rewards seniority, enabling longer-serving members with plum committee assignments to get more attention for their constituents’ needs. In the past century, average lengths of service for members of Congress have increased as members have become more likely to seek and win reelection.

The cost to run for office has also increased, and incumbent politicians have a huge fundraising advantage. In the U.S., the decision on whether to run for reelection is largely left to the candidates themselves. In countries with different systems, governing bodies can be more representative because parties can exert more pressure on candidates to leave and more effectively recruit younger members to serve. It may be that American voters aren’t electing younger candidates because they don’t have the options in front of them. 



For younger generations who want greater representation in elected bodies, concerted action would be needed to overcome these trends.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. The reading includes several examples of politicians demonstrating their lack of knowledge around technology. What do you think about this? Are there other examples you can think of? How might this relate to the issue of adultism?
  3. According to the reading, what factors have contributed to the change in the average age of elected officials in Congress?
  4. The Constitution requires that members of the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old when taking office, while members of the Senate must be at least 30 years old. What do you think of these minimum age requirements? Who benefits from these rules? Who doesn’t? In what ways does it seem fair? Unfair?


Reading Two: Does Age Matter in Government?

What is the impact of having elected officials in Washington, DC that, on average, are older than in the past? 

Some people believe that the age of politicians should not be a great concern, that veteran politicians benefit from the wisdom of experience, or that negative attitudes about older officials constitute a form of stereotyping and age discrimination that should be rejected. However, youth advocates argue that older politicians tend to focus on issues of most importance to their older constituents. 

Therefore, social issues whose impacts are felt most intensely by younger people may not be prioritized in the halls of power. In an August 2023 article for Teen Vogue, Miles Kirkpatrick, a student writer at Yale University, discussed this and other ramifications of having a “gerontocracy,” or a government ruled by the elderly. Kirkpatrick wrote:

With many leaders showing their age recently, a previously somewhat obscure word, “gerontocracy,” meaning “a government ruled by the elderly,” is popping up everywhere….

There are downsides to having a country run by its eldest citizens. The most obvious are the flash points where politicians' physical and cognitive abilities decline drastically…. Barring the most extreme cases, though, government business can usually proceed as planned with older lawmakers in power. "Congresspeople have staff at this point that inform them. There's not a huge effect of age, per se," [Kevin Munger, a professor of political science at Penn State] says. "Most old congresspeople are still competent.".... 

Gerontocracies can, however, really cause problems with what bills get passed. "It has more to do with what issues get on the agenda," says Munger. In a gerontocracy, issues like social security reform are more likely to be seen as top priorities. Urgent issues that will impact people in the coming decades, such as climate change, get pushed aside.

A uniquely American gerontocracy issue is its influence on the future political class. In other Western democracies, green parties have played significant roles in government and have acted as training grounds for young politicians. But here, young political actors are forced to work within the two parties of their entrenched gerontocracy.



In response to these issues, some advocates have pushed for policies that would lessen the influence of older generations on the country’s government. One proposed remedy is to set maximum age limits for elected office similar to the current minimum age requirements already in place, a potential change that has high rates of public support. In a September 2022 article for CNN, editor-at-large Chris Cilliza covered a recent CBS News poll on the popularity of setting such a limit. Cilliza wrote:

A new CBS News poll shows that almost three in four Americans (73%) think there should be some sort of maximum age limit placed on elected officials… Interestingly, the youngest group in the survey – those ages 18-29 – are least in favor of maximum age limits (68%), while three quarters of all other age cohorts back them.

What should the age cutoff be to serve in office? The most common answer among the choices presented in the CBS poll was 70 years old, with 4 in 10 Americans picking that option. One in 4 (26%) said 60 should be the oldest someone can be to hold elected office, while 18% said 80 should be the limit.”



While restricting older people from serving in elected office age enjoys popular support, Forbes magazine diversity, equity, and inclusion contributor Sheila Callaham pushed back against the idea of age limits on politicians in a July 2023 op-ed, arguing that such measures would be discriminatory: “The biggest problem with setting an age limit is that age does not equal ability. People age differently,” Callaham contended. “That means the mental acuity of one 90-year-old cannot predict the mental acuity of anyone else at the same age… Finally, how can we reliably measure mental acuity without political influence or motivation?”

Another proposed measure to increase youth representation involves reserving seats in government and slots in elections for younger people to fill, referred to as “youth quotas.” In a 2021 report, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of national parliaments, outlined three types of quotas that governments worldwide have used to increase youth participation:

Countries around the world use a variety of quota systems to increase youth participation in parliament. In some instances, such systems require a minimum number of young candidates. Other systems require setting aside parliamentary seats for young people.

Youth quotas are relatively new. Unlike the already existing women and minority quotas, youth quotas are unique in the sense that people inevitably transition out of them having reached the upper age threshold while others transition in.

Quotas can generally be grouped into three categories:

  • reserved seats: parliamentary seats that are specially set aside for youth representation. They are reserved by law and are an integral part of the electoral process;
  • legislated candidate quotas: political parties are legally required to have a minimum number of young people on their roster, typically as part of party lists; and
  • political party quotas: individual parties adopt their own quotas, without any legal requirement.



In the United States, it is unlikely that either age limits or youth quotas will be passed into law in the immediate future, considering that a maximum age limit would require an amendment to the Constitution and that youth quotas remain a novel idea in the American context. Rather than waiting for such measures, several organizations are currently working to increase youth representation across the country, like Run for Something, a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains young people to run for elected office and the Future Caucus, which brings young policymakers from across the country together around issues pertinent to up-and-coming generations. 

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, in what ways are young people impacted by the age difference between them and their elected officials? What did you think of these arguments? Are there ways that you see young people being affected that were not mentioned in the reading?
  3. What are some of the solutions that have been proposed to increase youth representation in the political system? Which did you find to be the most compelling? Are there other solutions you would suggest?
  4. Polls show significant support for the idea of implementing age limits on certain political offices. What arguments did writer Sheila Callaham make in response to such measures? What did you think of her perspective? How does her argument relate to the issue of ageism?
  5. If you were elected to public office tomorrow, on what issues would you focus your time and energy? How do you think this might differ from the priorities of your current elected officials?

– Research assistance provided by Sean Welch.