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Does It Really Matter How Old Our Politicians Are?

By Troy Cofie

We have all heard complaints of politicians being too old. From President Joe Biden’s cognitive and physical abilities being constantly questioned to former President Donald Trump’s cognitive health being called into question, to our legislators having “hiccups,” as one might put it, when it comes to their cognitive functions. The most recent cases are with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 82, freezing up for 30 seconds when asked a question, and late California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s cognition being questioned by her colleagues and staffers when she held that position. 

It doesn’t stop there, with the average age of representatives being 57 years old and senators being 64. This begs the question: Does the age of our politicians actually matter at the end of the day?

It’s difficult to say. To have older politicians in the Capitol isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it remains a massive concern. The issue isn’t just about the cognitive health of our politicians; I think that makes the situation an individual problem and can result in stereotypes about old people being senile. Rather, I think it’s how society at large can lead to older people being in power more than middle-aged and younger people.

A clear example of this comes from the U.S. Census Bureau: “older Americans” will tend to vote at higher rates than younger Americans. This was the case during the 2016 election and the 2020 election, where “those age 65 and older” were overrepresented in the 2020 election, according to the Bureau. Furthermore, older Americans tend to be more financially secure and are wealthier than younger generations. Americans who are 70 or older hold 30% of the U.S. wealth are 65 or older Americans who mostly own homes. Economic security is key for political participation since lower-income Americans suffer from chronic diseases, poverty and premature death, all of which prevents them from extensive political participation compared to higher-income Americans.

Younger people feel that they don’t have the support and aren’t as informed as they hope when it comes to the political process. This is more evident when it comes to younger people who don’t have a college background and/or are a person of color. I emphasize this because I feel we need a better understanding of political behavior across age groups, which might lead to older politicians being entrenched in power.

Gerontracy, the rule of older people, is more of a pressing issue, not the loss of abilities that come with age. Without younger people in political office or simply involved in politics, this allows more timely issues that have garnered more attention in recent years, like climate change, to fall off some politicians' desks. Governments and political organizations around the world have structures that favor a “culture of seniority” rather than a culture that engages with all people from age groups, specifically with age limits to get into certain positions and no term limits.

The depth of a country’s democracy plays a role in whether a country will elect younger people. In countries with proportional representation, an electoral system where many representatives are elected from one district based on the proportion of votes, citizens tend to elect more young people into office. Tuft University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reports that there has been an increasing rate of 18- to 25-year-old people running for office in the past 10 years. Overall, the general political system has to be accommodated for younger people to participate in politics and civic culture in general. Term limits, as well as how electoral systems and other reforms, have to be considered to allow young people into office.

If you’re an Adelphi student and ever thought of running for office, don’t be afraid to — at least if you’re eligible. Go for it and make the changes that you think need to happen, even if others may tell you that you don’t have the experience to do so.

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