This is the question I was asked the other day: “Why does it seem that American politics is dominated by older people, and what does it mean?”
One thing is without question: short of their deaths, or a huge “black swan” landing on the political landscape ahead of the 2024 presidential election, these people will be key to its outcome:
Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, born in March 1931; Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, born in March 1940; powerful House majority whip and huge player in the African-American community Jim Clyburn, born in July 1940; leftist touchstone Bernie Sanders, born in September 1941; Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, born in February 1942; president Joe Biden, born in November 1942; ex-president and classified document collector Donald Trump, born in June 1946.
At 76 – he’ll be 78 when polling day rolls around – Trump is the actual “teen” in this group rather than just the person acting like one.
Our presidents are getting older. If the last three inhabitants of the White House before Trump could somehow jump back into the 2024 race – none can, all won two terms – they would still be younger than the folks who could end up running the country now.
Harry S Truman was 60 when he succeeded Roosevelt. Dwight D Eisenhower was 62 at inauguration. John F Kennedy was 43, Lyndon B Johnson was 55 when he was sworn in on a plane back from Dallas and Richard Nixon was 56. Gerald Ford was 61 when he entered the Oval Office. Jimmy Carter was 52, and then we had a big leap to Ronald Reagan, 69. George Bush Sr was 64 when he took office, and then back down we go to Bill Clinton, 46, George W Bush, 54 and Barack Obama, 47. Trump was 70 when he marched into the White House and Biden 78.
So why is everyone, to put it politely, so “distinguished”? Well, US life expectancy is now 78.99 years and rising. The US, like Europe and the UK, has an ageing population, and people tend to vote for people who look and sound like themselves.
Happily still with us are many of what we call the Silent Generation or Greatest Generation, those born in America between 1928 and 1945. They are the parents and grandparents of us Boomers. They make up 7% of the US population, and by the way: these folks still vote.
So do we Boomers, born 1946-1964. We make up 21.16% of the population. While millennials, born between 1981 and 1986, make up 21.75%.
And even though the combination of Gen X, millennials and Gen Z outvoted their elders at the last midterms in 2018, it still didn’t stop two elderly white guys vying for the presidency two years later – both born before TV was in the American home as a matter of course – and it might not stop them running again in two years’ time.
The US median age has risen from 28.1 to 38.6 in the last 50 years, and the presidency is assumed, by many Americans, consciously or unconsciously, to be a “senior” position – often literally. After all, the word “Senate” is from the Latin word meaning elders.
Now: imagine all of the living US generations, seated on a long couch.
The squeezed ones are Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980. They are sometimes known as the “baby bust” generation because the birth rate went down as my generation of US Boomer women decided to delay childbirth or to have no children at all.
On one side of them are Generation Jones, born from 1954-64. They were children during Watergate, the oil crisis and stagflation. The name comes from “keeping up with the Joneses”, but if they have a “jones” or craving to become president they’ve barely shown it yet. Only Obama, born in 1961, has made it to the White House, although Kamala Harris (born 1964) still might.
On the other side of the generation couch are the millennials, born between 1981 and 1996 and Generation Z, born from the mid-1990s to about the early 2010s. In terms of age, Gen X and millennials should be completely running the electoral show now. But they aren’t, by and large.
In the US, a great deal of wealth is held by an older demographic in property, businesses and investments. Older campaigners have bigger war chests for campaigning because older people just tend to have more money.
Another reason that Gen X and Gen Jones are not dominating the electoral field is that while the US median age might be 38.6, the median age for US voters at the local level is almost 60 years of age. We Boomers tend to head to the ballot box to express ourselves politically. Younger people: not so much.
Thankfully, this is changing. The young are beginning to understand that politics in the US is also a kind of retail offer. To paraphrase an old New York Yiddish expression: “You don’t vote, you don’t get.”
Up until recently, too many of the young hadn’t quite grasped that running for office and then winning gets oppressors fired. But who has the time? In order to get anywhere on the career ladder in the US, you have to have a college degree. And a gold-plate one, too, from Harvard or some prestigious state university. That costs lots and lots of money.
And this is another blocker.
Affirmative Action allowed more and more people like me the opportunity to go to university. I accrued student debt, too, but there was only so much they were allowed to load on to me. So I got it paid off, although it kept me couch-surfing for years.
Students and former students now need serious debt relief. That will give some of them the time and space to consider running for office. Just about every president lately has offered some relief, but Biden’s latest offer is seen as a drop in the bucket for many; African-American women being especially deep in debt.
Will future US elections continue to be dominated by older candidates? Maybe not. As of 2021, there were 72.9 million millennials in the US. There were 64 million Gen Xers, the Trumpiest electorate. There were 69.6 million Boomers.
Now, after decades of constituting the majority of voters, we Boomers and our older brothers and sisters and moms and dads, the Silents, made up less than half of the electorate in 2020 (44%), falling below the 52% we constituted in both 2016 and 2018.
Millennials and Gen Xers made up 47% of 2020 voters and their numbers are growing. Change is coming.