Demographic Deficit: Has the Rise of Older Politicians Forced Millennials to the Sidelines?

Demographic Defecit

Is the prominence of older politicians alienating millennial and even Gen-Z voters from politics. Or is there something else at play? Illustrations: Pavel Mastepanov/Alamy Vector (American Flag); Bradley Cooper/Alamy Stock Photo (Biden); Lev Radin/Alamy Stock Photo (Trudeau); Roberto Daniel Alfonso/Alamy Stock Photo (Canadian Flag)

Every time U.S. President Joe Biden utters a bewildering one-liner at a press conference, nods off during a meeting or takes a header during a public appearance, the cringeworthy moment sweeps across social media, accompanied by ageist humour and condescending #okboomer commentary. Some pundits noted that Bill Clinton, who became the first real boomer president when he was elected in 1992, is somehow four years younger than Biden. 

And while Biden’s communications staff valiantly downplay these as harmless gaffes, it’s becoming increasingly harder to spin the fact that the world’s most gruelling job has taken its toll on the 80-year-old president. A poll conducted in August by AP-NORC on 1,165 U.S. adults found that 77 per cent of Americans (and 69 per cent of Democrats) feel he is “too old for a second term.” Biden, who doesn’t drink or smoke and is clear of any major health problems, is out to prove the age sceptics wrong and is preparing to run again in 2024.

The age problem hardly ever comes up in Canada, and certainly not at the leadership level — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems like the picture of youthful vigour compared to his counterpart in Washington. Although he was attacked by Conservatives ads at the time for being “Just Not Ready,” Trudeau capitalized on his youthful qualities in 2015 by successfully reaching out to the younger generations, which is often credited for providing him with his first election victory — and only majority.

Whether it was jogging shirtless through parks or posing for selfies with unsuspecting young vacationers, he clicked with the kids. And when he was elected, he set up a council of young Canadians to inform him on their issues and even appointed himself as youth minister. At 51, Trudeau suddenly finds himself as the oldest of the three major party leaders in Ottawa but hasn’t completely abandoned the youth brand. Could a recent social media post with images of Trudeau meeting with the Youth Council be a signal that an election is coming?

America’s experiment with very old politicians has yielded mixed results. There is a plethora of 80-plus legislators like Senator Chuck Grassley, 90, who entered politics in 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. Some senators (ironically, the word is derived from the Latin for “old man”) show signs of mental and physical decline, like Mitch McConnell, 81, who has recently frozen twice mid-sentence in the middle of a press conference and Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90, whose battle against serious cognitive and physical issues is playing out in front of a nation. Others are going strong, like Senate power broker Nancy Pelosi, 83 and perennial presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, 82.

While the median age in the U.S is 38, the average age of U.S. senators is 64. It’s why many consider the U.S. a gerontocracy, ruled by what one Guardian article described as “an exceptionally old political class” that has become “out of touch” with the electorate. “America is not past our prime — it’s just that our politicians are past theirs,” jokes Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley, 51, who may have to retract that comment if Donald Trump, 77, wins the Republican presidential nomination for 2024.

Watching this unfold  are millennial and gen-Z voters, who must feel like victims of another bad joke — pushed to the political sidelines by the older generation just as they have been in the job and housing markets. This political age imbalance is not only creating generational tension but it’s also hurting democracy, claims Daniel Stockemer, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa and co-author of Youth Without Representation, which documents the political age imbalance that exists not only in the U.S. but in most Western parliaments, including Canada.

“Young politicians are under-represented on every level — candidacies, nominations, elections to parliament, cabinets and parties,” says Stockemer in a telephone interview. “And when a group is not adequately represented, it’s more likely than not that their claims will be silenced.” While political leaders in this country may seem far younger than their American counterparts, Stockemer calls the situation here only “slightly better.” A Statscan study released last year starkly shows how poorly younger people are under-represented in federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, local and regional governments in Canada. Only 5.6 per cent of our elected officials come from the 18-34 age group; for the 65-plus age group, it’s 31.8 per cent.

Without adequate representation, Stockemer feels younger people are being minimized or tokenized in politics. Their big concerns — like gun control, climate change, job security, affordability — are routinely ignored in favour of issues “more geared toward the interests of the elderly” — like health care or old-age benefits. “We can hardly expect quarrelling octogenarians to have that future clearly in mind,” writes Yuval Levin in a recent New York Times opinion piece. The solution to all these old geezers in power? Esquire writer Jack Holmes suggests hard-stop age limits: “Once you turn 80, you can’t run for public office anymore. Go spend some more time with the grandkids.”

But there are too many examples of “quarrelling octogenarians” who seem mentally and physically capable of governing and keeping up the demanding pace. For every Feinstein or McConnell, there’s a Grassley, Pelosi or Saunders who continue to leverage their experience and political capital to compensate for any diminishment in their physical or cognitive capacities. If they are physically and mentally competent, why should we ask them to step aside? 

Bill VanGorder, chief policy officer at CARP (a partner of ZoomerMedia), scoffs at the notion of imposing age limits. “As long as a politician remains competent and capable of solving problems, age simply shouldn’t matter,” he says in a recent interview. He suggests that it’s not the politicians’ age but their tenures in office that’s the real problem. “Long-term incumbents become unresponsive to any issue that won’t help them get re-elected,” he says. Instead of age limits, VanGorder suggests limiting politicians to a maximum term, say 12 years, which would create a revolving-door effect that eliminates the incumbent advantage that keeps younger politicians out of office. “Politics benefits from new voices,” he says.

Another effect of this age imbalance could be to create a generation of voters who are permanently disengaged from the democratic process. “Low representation feeds into low turnout rate, which feeds into low interest,” says Stockemer. In the 2021 federal election, 83 per cent of the roughly four million Canadians between the ages of 65 and 74 voted compared to 71 per cent of the nearly five million between the ages of 25 and 34. The danger is that they will give up on conventional politics and adopt more aggressive approaches, suggests Stockemer, citing the anti-police protests that rocked North American cities at the beginning of the decade.

One reason the younger generation may be put off is because of the negative associations they have toward politics and politicians, suggests Troy Scotchburn, a former youth activist, who now works with younger people as an organizer and mentor. “The word politics has become a pejorative,” he says. “I hear young people say, ‘I don’t do politics.’” Despite this prevalent cynicism, Scotchburn feels that when there’s a politician or issue that they care about deeply, younger people become “highly motivated” — they’ll buy a membership, go to the convention and show up at the polls.

We have seen glimpses of what can happen when young people shake off their political lethargy. Young people played a leading role in the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010s. In 2017, Sebastian Kurz was elected Chancellor of Austria at age 31. Another young pol, Jacinda Ardern, became a hero to young New Zealanders when she became prime minister in 2017, at age 37, and Finland’s former prime minister Sanna Marin was hailed as “the coolest prime minister in the world” by German newspaper Bild when she was elected in 2019 at 34.

But, in each case, the success was transitory. Many of the Arab countries that experienced uprisings have become more authoritarian. Kurz was forced to resign in 2021 amid a corruption scandal and is now out of politics altogether, working as a strategist for tech billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel’s private investment firm. Ardern also resigned before New Zealand’s elections this year complaining that she no longer had “enough in the tank.” And Marin was upended in Finland’s April elections, a casualty of the country’s shift to the right plus the uproar caused by leaked videos of her cutting loose at a private party.

So how can we get young people interested in politics beyond scrolling through news headlines or liking video compilations of older politician fails. If they really want to make their voices heard in government, they shouldn’t wait for older legislators to hand over the office keys. Their political elders have spent their lives in public service, putting in long hours in tedious committees, wearing out shoes pounding the pavement, sacrificing family time to attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and bearing up to the endless criticism from the voters and the media.

Perhaps a young leader will step forward and spark a movement, like Greta Thunberg did for the environment. Or else an issue massive significance will emerge that will energize the demographic. Whatever the case, politics needs the voice and energy of young people. Because democracy only works when all voices are represented. “Older people have the experience; middle-age people are at the pinnacle of their careers and young people bring innovation and new ideas,” says Stockemer. “Every group has some benefit to bring.” 

A version of this article appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2023 issue with the headline ‘Demographic Deficit,’ p. 36.