Congress has an aging problem.

Over the years, there’s been plenty of ink spelled about the lack of diversity in Congress: There aren’t enough women, people of color or LGBTQ members. That’s a fair criticism. Slowly but surely, things are beginning to change. What’s been noticed less – even though, in some ways, it’s an even bigger problem – is the difference in age between Congress and the rest of the population. This Congress, the average age of members is 59; in the U.S. Senate, it’s 65, and in the House, it’s 58. That might not seem to be a huge problem. These are senior positions in the federal government, after all. It might seem natural to have them trend towards the older side.

The problem is, that’s not really true, and it represents a huge gap from the population as a whole. When it comes to other Western democracies, we’re also completely out of sync on this. The average age of the U.K. House of Commons, for instance, is around 50. Canada, too, is much lower at 52 years old; so is France, at 48. Members of Congress are even older than most Fortune 500 CEOs, another senior executive position – they average around 57.

So, no, the United States Congress is not typical of elected officials in Western democracies, nor is it typical of senior executives. That’s a problem because members of Congress aren’t just expected to lead but to represent their constituents – and the age gap there is enormous; the average of the U.S. population is 38.

For an example of this phenomenon, we need only look to Maine, where, when Olympia Snowe suddenly retired from the U.S. Senate, her replacement ended up being just three years younger than her. Maine’s congressional delegation as a whole, apart from Rep. Jared Golden, trends in that direction: Sen. Susan Collins is 72, Rep. Chellie Pingree is 68, Sen. Angus King is 79. Even with Maine being the oldest state in the country, having 75% of the delegation over the age of 65 is out of step with the state as a whole, where that number is less than 25%.

Now, it’s easy to play games with statistics. And it would be wrong to say that all older members are inherently incapable of doing their job, or that youth is necessarily an advantage. There are plenty of incompetent and/or unhinged younger members of Congress in both parties; similarly, there are quite a few reasonable, experienced older members of Congress. Age isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, at least, not on a case-by-case basis.


Instead, the problem is that the institution as a whole doesn’t reflect the broader population, and that often shows. It is glaringly obvious when members of Congress who are supposed to be able to hold industry leaders to account have no idea about new technology, for instance, even confusing the names of products. While it might be a little amusing when Bill Belichick doesn’t know the name of popular social networks, it’s disconcerting when elected officials who are supposed to be in charge of regulating them have no clue what they’re talking about.

The solution here isn’t to change the rules to discourage or bar older people from running for office; we don’t need a mandatory retirement age or term limits for Congress. The voters ought to be trusted to make those decisions for themselves. Instead, it’s up to leaders in both parties to make a concerted effort to encourage young people to run for office, and to encourage their older members to step down when it’s time.

We can see this working properly in two separate cases: Mitt Romney’s retirement from the U.S. Senate and Austin Theriault’s campaign for Congress in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. In his retirement message to his constituents, Romney directly cited the need for the next generation to step up and criticized both Trump and Biden as being out of touch. Even though Golden is the youngest member of the Maine delegation, it’s refreshing to see an even younger face step up for the Republicans in Maine.

This is the way the system is supposed to work, with a younger generation stepping up to lead. For far too long, we’ve been treading water, with Congress becoming older all the while. We can turn that around, but there’s no quick fix; it will be up to all of us, as voters, to ensure that the United States doesn’t become a gerontocracy.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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