Graying of Congress Isn't Just Your Imagination

October 26, 2004 | By Bree Hocking

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Members appear to be sporting more baldpates and silver hairs these days: A new database launched this weekproclaims the 108th Congress the oldest in history.

According to the firm that assembled the rankings, the current House and Senateis the most advanced in age, with Senators boasting an average age of60, while Representatives clock in at 55.

More strikingly, the analysis found that “Generation X”—those individuals born between 1961 and 1981—is the slowest in U.S. history to attain political power.

Overall, Generation Xheld just 5 percent of national leadership posts, defined as theaverage of each generation’s share of House seats, Senate seats andstate governorships.

By contrast, theyear the first baby boomers turned 42—the age the researchers used tocompare generations across time—they held a 13 percent share of thatleadership pie. Boomers currently fill a majority of House seats and aplurality of Senate seats.

It’s a finding that may have implications for everything from partisanship levels to the policy focus of Congress.

“The longer boomers are in power, the longer the culture wars go on. Xers are more pragmatic,” said Mike Weber of LifeCourse Associates, which put together the database. “I don’t think you’ll ever see Xers shutdown the government or impeach the president. Also, I think Xers willbe fiscal realists.”

LifeCourse Associates is headed by Neil Howe and William Strauss—two authors and commentators who coined the term “Millennial Generation,” which refers to those born roughly between 1982 and 2002. They were also crucial in the initial public discussions defining Generation X.

Outside experts say there may be something to the LifeCourse analysis.

For instance, the older the Congress, the more emphasis on issues such as Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security, said presidential historian Allan Lichtman.

Lichtman also suggested a theory on why Generation Xers have come to power relatively late.

“Theydidn’t have that great defining moment,” said Lichtman, contrasting thesearing impact of the Depression, World War II and the Vietnam War onprevious generations.

What’s more,societal expectations have shifted noticeably, with Generation Xersbenefiting from a more diverse array of professional options beyondelectoral politics.

Michael Barone,co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics,” said he doesn’t detectas “many self-starting political entrepreneurs in this generation [as]you did in the previous one.”

Whilecautioning that such trends may not explain everything, Kenneth Kato,chief of the House’s Office of History and Preservation, agreed that “career ladders change over time.” Since the educated class “now can doanything they want”—from the creative arts to entertainment tobusiness—“it’s not surprising that you are going to see fewer peoplegoing into public service.”

In addition to analyzing the demographics of Congress, the database—www.lifecourse.com/leaders - also contains average ages and generational dataon state governorships, the Supreme Court, presidents and vicepresidents. The group used figures in the “Biographical Directory ofthe U.S. Congress, 1774-Present,” averaging the age of all individualsserving in a given Congress over the two-year period, using the age aMember turned during the first year of that Congress. Ages were thenrounded up to the nearest whole number.

Someof Congress’ youngest Members, such as Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.),pointed to advances in health care and rising life expectancies aslikely causes of an older Congress. But others, such as Rep. AdamPutnam (R-Fla.), refused to accept the study’s premise. “It’s astatistical anomaly,” he said, reeling off a list of Congressionalyoungsters, including himself, Nunes, Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.)and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio).

For his part, thedean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), barely flinched wheninformed of the news. “We’re doing what we can to get them involved,” he said of younger Americans.

Senate andHouse officials said the advanced age of Congress did not in itselfhold much significance for the institution. After all, they noted, theaverage age of the preceding Congress, according to the LifeCourseanalysis, was only one year less in both the House and Senate.

Forthe most part, “since 1885 the average [of the Senate] has been over55,” said Senate Historian Richard Baker. From time to time, he said,there are “large turnovers in the Senate” that could affect both theaverage age and the generational hold on power. For instance, duringthe three elections from 1976 to 1980, 55 new Senators were elected, hesaid. Although recent years have seen three Senators break the 40-yearservice mark, Baker said, given the small number of Senators, theinstitution “is not very reliable statistically.”

Inthe House—where redistricting has sharply reduced the number ofcompetitive seats—tenures are on the rise, which could also partlyexplain the aging membership, said Kato.

Whilethe database does not address the rates at which Generation Xers havesought office, Weber—who self-published a book for state legislatorson American political leadership through the generations—said thathis anecdotal research points to “skeletons in the closet” as a keydeterminant in convincing Xers to forgo runs for office.

“They are concerned about things they did in college—drugs, sex,” he said.

Weberadded that once more Generation X women have finished raising children,he expects to see a spike in the number of Xers holding office.Currently, only four of 47 Generation Xers in Congress are women.

Despitebeing slow out of the gate, Xers are expected to seize powereventually, in what could become a dramatic power shift. But Howe warnsthat they ought to watch their back.

The Millennial Generation is set to be “a political powerhouse,” said Howe,pointing to that generation’s more community-oriented upbringing andteam approaches to problem solving, as well as the service-inspiringeffects of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The oldestMillennials are roughly college age.

“With the Millennial Generation now on campus, we are going to see even inthis coming election…the first signs of a complete reversal in theapathy and withdrawal we have seen among Generation X,” he said.

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