In recent weeks, Democratic candidates in battleground states have offered a similar critique: Their party is ready for a new generation of leaders.
There was Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), seeking election to the Senate, who in a radio interview in September noted President Biden’s past pledge to serve as a bridge to new Democratic leadership. “I think it’s time for a generational move,” Ryan said.
More recently, it was Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) who, on “Meet the Press” earlier this month, said, “we need new blood, period, across the Democratic Party, in the House, the Senate and the White House.”
In response to Slotkin, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered muted agreement, then added that “there’s no substitute for experience.” At 82, Pelosi certainly has plenty of that.
To a significant extent, what Slotkin and Ryan are doing is calling for the ouster of Democratic officials — Pelosi, 79-year-old President Biden — who probably aren’t terribly popular in the districts where the younger candidates are seeking election. But the comments also reflect a broader rift in the country between a large older and a large younger generation.
It is unquestionably true both that the leadership of the House and Senate on the Democratic side are particularly old, as is Biden. It’s also true that Congress itself has trended older over the past three decades. You can see that below; darker colors reflect more senators and representatives in a Congress within the identified age range. See how the dark region shifts to the right as you move down the graph? That’s Congress getting older over time.
(The data here build on public data from FiveThirtyEight.)
The ages of presidents bounce around a bit over time, but the two most recent have been among the three oldest presidents in U.S. history.
The average age of members of the House and Senate was in the low 50s, dropping to about 50 in the early 1990s. Since then it has climbed to nearly 60.
But wait. Now we do some math. 1990 minus 50 is 1940. The median age fell to 50 in the early 1990s because baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) were reaching that age! And because they were reaching an age when they were more likely to vote.
If we break the entire population by age group, you can see how it mirrors the graph above. It’s a bit smoother, but you see the same range of darker values as the population itself grows older. And the baby boom obviously stands out.
Congress is generally older than the population, certainly. But it is moving up in age because the population is moving up in age.
It’s always risky to assume that people vote solely along demographic lines, but it is also the case that more of the electorate is made up of older Americans. Michael McDonald of the University of Florida provides a breakdown of the composition of the electorate in each federal election cycle since 1986. See how it, too, keeps getting darker further to the right? Older Americans are making up more of the voter pool in part because they make up more of the population.
But there’s a subtle aspect to that population graph. Notice at the very bottom left that there’s the beginning of a new darker section? Just to the right of 2020? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the millennials.
Here we get into why it is that Democrats in particular are talking about generational change. National data on registered voters from the firm L2 shows that much more of the Republican Party is aged 50 and up than is the case with Democrats. In other words, Democrats skew younger than Republicans — and therefore would be more likely to notice a generational discrepancy with their party’s leadership.
Again, it’s useful for Ryan and Slotkin to say let’s dump Biden and Pelosi through the lens of so we can give someone else a shot. But it’s not as though they are not capturing an actual pattern in American politics. Leaders are older because the country is older, but that also means that younger Americans — heavily Democratic — are less likely to see themselves in leadership and therefore to seek change.
This is also why both Pelosi and Biden have agreed with that motivation … at least once their own terms of office are complete.