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The Next Fight for Representation — Age in Politics

It’s Not The Fault of Millenials for Our Economic Situation — But We’re Partly to Blame

No matter who wins the election in November, they will be one of the oldest presidents in American history. And this trend applies to our legislatures as well. The average member of the House of Representatives and Senate is 58 and 62 respectively. Nearly half of US Senators are over the age of 65.

While the average politician is usually entering their elder years, the average American they’re representing is not yet 40. In fact, while Americans between the ages of 18–45 make up nearly 40% of the population, they make up approximately 20% of the national legislature. The numbers for local legislatures are incomplete, but the proportion is possibly even smaller.

So, why is this the case?

The boring answer is there isn’t just one reason. And, it’s not very quantifiable. However, there are a couple of factors we know contribute. Here are some of them.

  1. We vote less. And therefore, we have less control over who is and isn’t in the office. Politicians often garner the most votes from people within their generation. Without a significant voting block of young people, you won’t see too many young people running, or winning.
  2. We have fewer resources to run for office. Millennials and to some extent Gen Xers are notorious for having weak financial stability. As a result, taking 6 months or a year off from work to campaign is not a realistic option for most.
  3. Young people are not encouraged to run. Experience is often heavily touted as a pertinent factor for success in public office — and of course, experience is associated with age. Almost every major young candidate for office, from JFK to Barack Obama to Pete Buttigieg, was criticized for lacking experience, rather than acknowledging the ideas and experience they bring from a new generation. Although age is sometimes brought up for older candidates, it is rarely a dealbreaker.
  4. Age restrictions on running. To run for Senate you must be 30, to run for House you must be 25. Across the rest of the United States, there are a multitude of different age limits for local offices, already ruling out significant cohorts of young people.
  5. Legacy. As the continual rule by political dynasties that our country exhibits, name recognition is a huge factor in political success. Additionally, the political power and finances that incumbent candidates accrue from their office, in conjunction with no term limits, creates a system of government that perpetuates older legislatures.

However, despite young people’s lack of involvement and representation, many of the pressing issues in modern American society are primarily concerns for the youth, and often are problems that young people understand best.

There are two particularly exemplary cases of this, ones where a disconnect between the generations is striking: climate change and tech.

Millennials and Gen Zers from both parties have surprisingly similar views on climate change, according to an Ipsos survey, which polled roughly 2,000 U.S. adults. 77% of younger Republicans said that climate change is a serious threat, one percentage point more than Democrats in the same age range. This trend is not the case for older Americans, especially within the GOP.

“Millennial and Gen Z Republicans also are more likely than older Republicans to say climate change is having at least some impact on their local community (43% vs. 33%) and that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change (49% vs. 25%),” the Pew Research Center found.

The second — technology — was famously portrayed in April 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee following a series of privacy scandals involving the 2016 Presidential Election.

For some background — The personal information of about 300,000 Facebook users was collected from a personality quiz. The information of those users and their friends, a total of roughly 87 million people, was then shared with Cambridge Analytica, the British analytics firm that used personal data to target vulnerable voters and help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. On the days Zuckerberg took questions from the committee, millions watched with entertainment and concern as elderly Senators struggled to even grasp what Facebook actually does. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a then 84-year-old incumbent Senator, did not understand how Facebook made its money, and felt compelled to ask during the hearing itself. Zuckerberg looked astonished.

The handling of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal illustrates the issue with having a predominantly elderly deliberative body. Many of the major threats to American democracy today — cyber warfare, the intersection of social media and elections, and virtual monopolies — all have to do with technological advances that many senators clearly are not familiar with. During the Facebook hearings, Senator Hatch didn’t even know Facebook‘s business model, let alone the machinations of the platform’s threat to the Democratic process.

Like all of these issues, senators don’t need to be experts on each of these topics — nor should that be expected. There is an army of staffers and experts on the Hill to help. However, the heavy proportion of older senators, by nature of what they’re familiar with, will likely be reflected in the legislative issues they choose to address. As a result, the issues of younger voters are rarely fixed.

One clear illustration of this trend is the growing phenomenon of democratic-socialism among America’s youth, a trend that often breeds discontent and criticism from those on the right.

However, many of the issues that this movement is intending to address — student loans, affordable housing, climate change, and others, are primarily issues that affect the youth. The common campaign tropes of the establishment Right and Left rarely touch on these problems, and if they do, solutions are never brought to fruition. It’s hard to blame young people for following the likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar — they're of the few people actually talking about the policies young people care about.

It is worth noting that young people are more involved than most people think. Many of the recent political movements, from Greta Thunberg’s Climate March to the Black Lives Matter protests, were largely organized and led by people under 40. The frustration that bubbled over into these demonstrations shows a distinct resentment with the establishment’s refusal to engage with issues most important to younger cohorts.

However, even though it’s understandable for young people to be disenchanted or to not hold as much political power, it doesn’t excuse it. Our voting numbers are atrocious. Citizens aged 18–24 have the lowest voter turnout of any age group in America, and the next cohort of 25–35 does not fare much better. Where this is most apparent is local elections. A study conducted by Portland State University studied turnout in the recent mayoral elections in America’s 30 largest cities. They found citizens 65 years and older were seven times more likely to vote than those between 18 to 34. As long as this remains that way, we are partially to blame for our woes.

It’s a classic ‘chicken or the egg’ debate, but if young people voted more, it’s pretty reasonable to believe that politicians would have to engage, and actually do something about the issues that concern us. Until we vote, or have the money to back up our rhetoric, legislatures and politicians all over the country will have no political incentive to make any changes, and our socio-economic future won’t likely improve.

Kentuckian | Research at University College London | Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Via News, a news outlet for underreported stories.

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