Baby boomers loosen their grip on Congress
Gen X and millennials are gaining as some see ‘changing of the guard’
Move out of the way, TV dinners, and get ready for avocado toast. Baby boomers, or those born from 1946 to 1964, no longer make up the majority of Congress.
While still clinging to the top generational spot, boomers make up only a plurality of the newly convened 118th Congress, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of lawmakers’ birthdays. Around 48.5 percent of the representatives, senators and delegates come from the baby boom generation.
Helping to dislodge the boomers are gains made by Generation X, who account for 35.6 percent of members in the 118th. Millennials have jumped to about 10.2 percent.
But boomers aren’t going away, according to Kevin Munger, a political science professor at Penn State University. They hold outsize power in American politics, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“We’ve gone from considerably lower life expectancy to a higher life and health expectancy in a single generation. It does mean that we are currently at a period that’s kind of maximum gerontocracy,” Munger said.
Only 30 members of the Silent Generation, individuals born before the end of the Second World War, are part of the current Congress. That number has declined from nearly 7 percent of the previous Congress to 5.6 percent now.
The Silent Generation is also losing its clout in leadership.
The longtime Democratic triumvirate of Nancy Pelosi, Steny H. Hoyer and James E. Clyburn did not seek top leadership posts in the House, clearing the way for a new era. And in the Senate, longtime Appropriations stalwarts Patrick J. Leahy and Richard C. Shelby both retired.
For the first time ever, lawmakers have a member of Gen Z in their ranks with the arrival of 25-year-old Florida Democrat Maxwell Alejandro Frost.
“It’s just exciting to be part of a new cadre and a new changing of the guard,” he said.
Frost described the leadership changes in his party as a positive step. Both incoming House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar are Gen Xers, while Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark is a boomer.
As the 118th Congress gets to work, it does so with members born from 1933 to 1997. That wide range of ages may cause some friction across the board, according to Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University.
“When you get people with different experiences, whether from backgrounds or just simply time, you’re going to have those tensions in representation about what’s important and how best to respond,” Burgat said.
Burgat likens the generational tension in Congress to what you would see between family members. And some lawmakers drew the same comparison.
“It’s like my daughters. I teach them. They teach me,” said Democratic Rep. Lou Correa of California.
Citizens must be 30 years old to serve in the Senate and 25 to serve in the House, as stated in the Constitution. But while all millennials are now old enough to qualify for the House, they are underrepresented there. Millennials are about 22 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for a little under 12 percent of the House.
That matters, both Munger and Burgat said. Younger lawmakers might emphasize policy issues that resonate with their generation, like home ownership, student debt relief and climate change. Gen Zer Frost came to Congress informed in part by his gun control activism.
“What does retirement even mean for us? I mean, for real, what does it mean?” said millennial Lauren Underwood, an Illinois Democrat starting her third term. “We certainly have a different perspective where we’re not all confident that we will achieve more than our parents, or even parity with our parents.”
Millennials Katie Britt of Alabama and J.D. Vance of Ohio won their races this cycle, joining Jon Ossoff of Georgia in the Senate. The generation gained an even bigger foothold in the House, with a total of 52 members born from 1981 to 1996, including new additions like Anna Paulina Luna of Florida and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania.
Barriers to entering politics, like wealth and stability, still remain for younger candidates. But they have a couple of advantages too, Burgat said. Those with social media skills have successfully nationalized their brands to shake up traditions on Capitol Hill.
Florida millennial Matt Gaetz, who has 2 million Twitter followers and hosts a podcast, joined with a band of fellow Republicans last week to make life difficult for now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy from the earliest moments of the new Congress.
And as for previous years, Burgat points to New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to extract concessions from party leaders.
“You can kind of skip to the front of the line with a national brand,” he said. “She was a player in negotiating whether Speaker Pelosi got the gavel back, and that’s why the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis effectively happened.”
Seniority often rules on the Hill, along with old adages — pay your dues, wait your turn. But there’s a reason for some of that, said Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, who became the longest-serving woman in congressional history at the start of this term.
“We’ve moved into an era of a lot of instant food, instant oatmeal and instant communication, but building a nation isn’t instant. You have to dig in. It’s like growing a tree,” she said.
‘Go to Dairy Queen’
While some see generational divides as crucial to understanding American politics, not everyone is buying it. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who is set to turn 90 in September, said lawmakers can connect with all ages if they try. “Go to Dairy Queen like I do, or go to McDonald’s and talk to people there,” he said.
The same goes for getting along with colleagues on Capitol Hill, as he recalls doing in his early Senate days. “I was 46 years old and everybody else was 75 years old. It’ll be the same this time,” he said.
Nowadays he does have a soft spot for Twitter, of course, to keep up with younger generations.
Hawaii’s Brian Schatz was born in 1972, and he calls himself “young for the Senate.” He used to think bringing younger generations to Congress would be a panacea for all of America’s problems.
He doesn’t think that anymore. “I’ve seen almost no correlation between the age of the member and the quality of their service,” he says. “It depends whether you’re talking about Madison Cawthorn, or somebody a little more serious.”
Another Gen Xer had a different take. Rep. Ro Khanna said he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride as he saw Jeffries, born in 1970, rise through the caucus and claim the spot of House minority leader.
“We grew up in a time cheering for Rocky … at a time celebrating the American promise,” said Khanna, a California Democrat.
Gen X often gets a bad rap as America’s forgotten generation, but as more of them come to Congress, they just might buck the stereotype.
“I wonder whether our generation can help restore that sense of hope about the country and sense of finding a common purpose,” Khanna said.
Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.