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McClatchy Washington Bureau
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Brendan Rascius

What’s a gerontocracy — and is the US one? Data shows Congress is trending older

The average congressperson is far older than the average American, a fact that won’t surprise most people. But senators and representatives are increasingly staying in office into their later years, a trend that worries some and smacks of ageism for others.

The average age of members of the House of Representatives at the beginning of the current Congress was 58.4 years old while the average age for senators was 64.3, according to an August report from the Congressional Research Service, making it the oldest Congress in at least two decades, according to CNN.

In 1980, only 5% of Congress was over the age of 70. By 2022, that statistic had more than quadrupled to 23%, according to a new analysis from Insider. Many in leadership positions in Congress are even older. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82 years old and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80.

National leaders inside and outside of government are experiencing similar demographic trends. Current district and circuit court judges are “among the oldest ever,” according to Insider, and at 79, President Joe Biden is the oldest American president ever. In addition, the age of new CEOs was about 20% higher in 2020 than in 2005, according to the Crist Kolder Volatility Report.

Is the United States a gerontocracy?

This growing proportion of sexagenerarians and septuagenarians in the legislature, as well as in other leadership positions, has led some to posit the U.S. is becoming a gerontocracy, defined as a state governed by old people.

There’s no defined threshold for when it would be appropriate to classify a government this way, so that remains up for debate. There’s certainly no rule requiring older U.S. leaders — the minimum age is 25 for the House, 30 for the Senate and 35 for the president — and lawmakers on the younger side still do get elected. But the latest average age stands.

One of the chief complaints among critics is that America’s leaders, particularly in Congress, are increasingly unrepresentative of the nation. The average American is 38.8 years old, according to the Census Bureau, making the average member of Congress two decades older than the people they are elected to represent.

Astra Taylor, writing for the New York Times, argues, “Not only is the cohort of people born after 1980 much more diverse than that of Americans now entering retirement… they are less well-off compared to their predecessors at the same age.”

Additionally, some are concerned that leaders could experience cognitive decline associated with old age. One Washington, D.C. pharmacist made headlines in 2017 claiming he had filled Alzheimer’s prescriptions for members of Congress.

Even within the government, some have expressed concern about the cognitive abilities of America’s leaders. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who is also a gastroenterologist, told Axios, “At some point, and statistically it’s in the 80s, you begin a more rapid decline. So anybody who’s in a position of responsibility who may potentially be on that slope, that is of concern, and I’m saying this as a doctor.”

Cassidy also suggested older leaders, across all three branches of government, should be made to take cognition tests.

While the majority of seniors don’t have cognitive impairment or dementia, of Americans 65 and older, “roughly 20 to 25% have mild cognitive impairment while about 10% have dementia,” Kenneth Langa, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, told the Washington Post.

Support remains for older lawmakers

Defenders of America’s government golden-agers might say that while elected officials increase in age, the electorate also grows older. In fact, the share of the population 65 and older will be larger than the population under 18 by 2034, according to the Census Bureau.

Taking the offense against ageism in the workplace, Arthur Brooks, a columnist at The Atlantic, drew the distinction between two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. The first is the “ability to solve abstract problems,” and the second “represents a person’s knowledge gained during a lifetime of learning.”

“In a youth-dominated culture and economy,” Brooks adds, “(we) tend to overweight the importance of fluid intelligence and underweight crystallized intelligence. We demand new products and amazing inventions but disregard what experience would tell us are their implications for our companies, culture, and well-being.”

For the foreseeable future, opinions will likely remain mixed on the importance of age and experience in governance. But as younger generations begin to outvote boomers and prior generations, a phenomenon that occurred for the first time in the 2016 and 2018 elections, the makeup of Congress may begin to change.


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