A younger Congress may be a thing of the past.
It’s taking five to 10 years longer for millennials and Generation X to reach the same level of representation in Congress as it had been for the past three generations, according to a CNN analysis of recent data from Congress, CQ and ProPublica.
In the decade after turning 25 — the age requirement to hold office in the House — baby boomers (ages 59-77) were able to retain 18 seats, while millennials (27-42) only won four during the same time period. Ten years after meeting the age requirement for the Senate, age 30, baby boomers landed four seats, with millennials unable to get a single one. Today, millennials hold 52 seats in the House and three in the Senate.
Experts attribute the widening gap to an aging population and seats that are growing less competitive, while the cost to win them keeps rising.
Millennials overtook baby boomers as America’s largest generation in 2020, according to Pew Research. But the data shows that population size isn’t yet translating into more representation in Congress.
“I think people are becoming more and more frustrated with the fact that our Congress does not accurately reflect the population of America at this point,” said Erin Covey, an analyst at Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political newsletter.
Millennials and Generation Z (11-26) are winning their very first House seats faster than the previous four generations, CNN’s analysis shows. It’s still too early to determine what this will mean down the line for Gen Z, but for millennials, they are winning seats at an older age than their predecessors in both chambers over time.
Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Florida) was the first member of a new generation – Gen Z – to be elected in the first eligible year in at least 100 years. It took three years for millennials, five years for baby boomers and seven years for the Silent Generation to join the House.
In the Senate, however, it’s taken more than 10 years for both Generation X and millennials to join Congress. The first member of the Silent Generation in the Senate, Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), joined only four years after his generation was first eligible. It took baby boomers five years to arrive in the Senate.
As the country gets older overall, the costs to run for office are rising and the competitiveness of congressional districts and Senate seats is falling – three major reasons why younger generations are having a hard time obtaining seats, said James Curry, a political scientist at the University of Utah.
CNN’s analysis shows the average age of Congress has crept up over time, which is helping prevent younger generations from making more inroads than in the past, experts told CNN.
“It’s simply more possible to have more people in their 60s, 70s and 80s hanging out in Congress [now] than would have been the case 30, 40, 50 years ago, when lifespans were shorter,” Curry said.
At an average 58.7 years old, the current Congress is the second-oldest in history, according to CNN’s analysis. That’s only a hair younger than the last Congress at 58.9 years old.
And once elected, members of Congress are staying longer than in previous decades. It’s not clear whether the same number of candidates are running or fewer young people are throwing their hats in the ring.
The average representative or senator in the current Congress had been serving for 8.5 years and 11.2 years, respectively, as of the beginning of this term, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. That’s at least a year longer than during the early 1980s, when the average incoming member of the 97th Congress had been serving for roughly 7.5 years.
“Most seats are relatively uncompetitive,” Curry said. “And unless you get primaried, which relatively few members do, you can hang on to that seat for as long as you want, which means you could be in there to quite an advanced age without really having to worry about reelection.”
The number of members of Congress under the age of 50 over the past couple of decades has shrunk considerably, while the number over the age of 70 has ballooned. In the Senate, there’s never been a larger number of senators over 70 and smaller number under 50.
A more elderly Congress also affects legislative priorities. Older representatives are more likely to advance policies on issues that affect elderly Americans, such as nursing homes and elder abuse, according to a 2018 study by Curry and then-Ph.D. student Matthew R. Haydon, now with Texas A&M University. And consequently, Curry said, one could say less attention is paid toward issues that might be more important to voters under the age of 50, such as affording a house or student loan debt.
“If you’re younger, and you’re not well off, and the wages aren’t high enough and you can’t afford a home and you have student loans… all those things hit you more when you’re 25-30 years old, in a way that a 25 or 30 year-old member of Congress could relate to more directly because they’ve probably felt that pinch as well,” he said.
There have been recent signs of increased engagement with younger generations, though. More organizations have formed over the past few years to support younger voters and candidates, Covey said, and a larger share of younger voters have cast ballots over the past 10 years.
Frost was one of two major party Gen-Z House candidates last year in competitive or open seats who each explicitly embraced their generational identity in their campaigns, Covey said.
An analysis by Tufts University shows that 23% of eligible young voters (18-29 years old, which would include Zoomers and the youngest millennials) cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm election. That’s 10 percentage points higher than youth voter turnout in 2014, although still down from 28% in 2018, a historic high.
Although Congress is grayer than ever, a generational shift has started in House leadership.
Nancy Pelosi, then 82, handed Democratic leadership over to 52-year-old Hakeem Jefferies in January. The new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, was born in 1965, which makes him part of Generation X, along with Jeffries.
“I think that kind of shows how much of an appetite there is for generational change,” Covey said. “And for folks to pass the torch on to younger generations.”