Incoming Gen Xers Rejuvenate Congress

November 30, 2014 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

The midterms are over and a Republican tsunami has wiped out Democrats from Capitol Hill and many state governments. These results were largely expected. What was unexpected was the sharp decline—against trend—in the average age of Congress. A new influx of 40-something Gen-X Republicans is rejuvenating America’s political leadership. The rise of this surprisingly conservative generation of politicians is part of a broader narrative, foreshadowing a future—lasting over at least the next decade— in which Boomer leaders are stepping down and Millennials are not yet old enough to take the helm.

The midterm results represent a historic victory for the Republican Party.The last time the GOP held such a large majority in both houses of Congress was in 1928. For state legislators and state legislative chambers, it was 1920. And the GOP’s treasure trove of 32 governorships is just short of the record 34 they held in 1922.

A variety of factors converged this election cycle that practically guaranteed a banner year for Republicans. For starters, Democrats couldn’t shake Obama’s dire approval ratings or the midterm penalty this election cycle. They also faced an uphill battle with more Senate seats on the chopping block, pushing the odds in the GOP’s favor. And midterm turnout generally favors GOP-leaning groups—a pattern evident in the final turnout numbers of men, whites, and older voters. What’s more, some traditionally Democratic-leaning groups shifted support to Republicans, namely Asians and Millennials in their early 20s. And finally, voter turnout was unusually low at only 36.4%—the lowest for a national election since 1942.

While pundits obsessed over the dimensions of the GOP victory, very few noticed a striking downturn in the average congressional age. In recent decades, this number has been generally rising. In 2009, the 111th Congress was the oldest in U.S. history, with an average age of 57.4 in the House and 63.4 in the Senate. This is a far cry from 1814, when the average Representative was 44.9 and Senator was 46.2. In part, this trend simply reflects the overall aging of the population. But in the past couple of elections, we’ve witnessed a reversal in this trend. For example, the average age dropped from 62.8 to 61.7 in the 113th Senate. Furthermore, the new entrants are getting younger. The average age of the 113th congressional freshmen was 52.3 and this year’s batch was 50.6. (If you’re interested in these age-of-leadership numbers, check out our American Leadership Database.)

Average Age of Congress (1933-2013)

Average Age of Congress (1933-2013)

A closer look at both parties reveals that the GOP has been driving this age drop. While Democrats continued to age up, Republicans became younger. This started with the 113th freshman class: Averaging the ages of both Senators and Representatives, Republicans and Democrats came in at 51.7 and 52.4, respectively. The average age of this year’s pack of young Republicans is 49.9—even further below the Democratic average (52.3). These young GOP entrants are also replacing older congressmen. This year’s new Senators are 16 years younger than their predecessors on average. Indeed, some of these 40ish Xers are decades younger than the 70ish Boomers and Silent they are replacing. The partisan gap is even more striking among the dozen or so party leaders in each chamber. The average age of Democratic House leaders is 64, over a decade older than the average age of Republican House leaders (53).

So why are today’s incoming batch of younger leaders so disproportionately Republican? To some extent, a major victory naturally favors the younger leaders of the winning party. But that’s not all: GOP affiliation seems to be a generational trait among Xer politicians. It turns out that Xers as elected leaders, born in the ‘60s and ‘70s, have consistently leaned Republican since they began running for office in the ‘90s. Of all Xers who have ever served in the House, 60.2% are Republican. Among state governors, that rises to 70.6%.

Xer leaders also tilt Republican because their generation as a whole has tended to vote Republican over the course of their lives—certainly more than first-wave Millennials or Boomers. This voting preference has no doubt been shaped by their location in history. Ever since they grew up as latchkey kids in the ‘70s and came of age under Reagan in the ‘80s, Xers (first-wavers, especially) have prided themselves on their pragmatism, survivalism, and skepticism of big institutions—traits that align better with the GOP than the Democratic Party.New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests that the Republican tilt of Gen-X leaders may be further accentuated by their strong connection to conservative cornerstones like churches, small businesses, and the military.

Notwithstanding, the recent election does hold some signs of hope for Democrats—particularly those on the Elizabeth Warren side of the party. This year, voters in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. legalized marijuana, rallying many libertarian Xers to the Democratic ticket. Meanwhile, voters in four red-leaning states passed legislation to raise the state-level minimum wage. The passage of these liberal initiatives—some winning with as much as 69% of the vote—is a glimmer of hope for Democrats struggling toward 2016.

Ultimately, however, this election could be a sign that the next decade will be dominated by Xer voters and leaders. And thus far, these voters and leaders have leaned Republican. One sign of this partisan edge is how many Republican presidential hopefuls under age 55 are crowding up to run in 2016. The GOP’s starting lineup is likely to feature a string of relatively youthful and nationally prominent governors and congressmen, including Chris Christie (52), Rand Paul (51), Scott Walker (47), Marco Rubio (43), Bobby Jindal (43), Ted Cruz (43), and Nikki Haley (42). Meanwhile, the Democratic bench, featuring Boomers and Silent like Elizabeth Warren (65), Hillary Clinton (67), Jim Webb (68), Joe Biden (72), and Bernie Sanders (73), looks a little empty—and gray.

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