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US Congress Members Are Far Older Than International Counterparts. Why?

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Two old white men wearing suits talk with each other on the floor of the US Senate
Republican Senators Mitch McConnell (right), 81, and Chuck Grassley, 90, are 2 of the US Senate's oldest members. More than half the Senate is over 60. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Dianne Feinstein, who died Thursday night, was the longest-serving U.S. senator in California history. She was 90.

Feinstein is celebrated for her legacy of breaking the glass ceiling for women in politics and for mentoring an entire generation of female leaders in the state. But her ability to do the job was called into question in the final years of her career, although most of her colleagues declined to say so publicly.

Notably, Feinstein, who became a nonagenarian in June, had to step away from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work confirming judicial nominees when she was hospitalized in the spring due to shingles. Her absence led to a backlog and prompted some of her Democrat colleagues, like South Bay Rep. Ro Khanna, to ask her to resign. In August, she was hospitalized after a fall at her San Francisco home.

In April, after a Texas judge issued a ruling intended to roll back the Food and Drug Administration approval of the abortion pill mifepristone, Khanna said that the “extremist judge’s ruling has made it clear that Democrats must act with speed and urgency to confirm judicial nominees who will protect the right to an abortion.” He said that Feinstein was “unable to fulfill her duties and for the good of the people, she should resign.”

Read more: Here’s why you’re likely to vote four times on Feinstein’s replacement.


This scenario of octogenarian politicians being asked to step aside to make way for younger representatives is not unique to Feinstein. In fact, in the early 1980s, another California politician, Republican S.I. Hayakawa, received similar pressure to retire at the end of his short-term stint as senator after he was seen napping during meetings.

This summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, appeared to freeze twice in front of the press. Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who turns 84 in March, has faced criticism for announcing her intention to run again next year.

According to Axios, the U.S. Senate now has three octogenarians and one nonagenarian. More than half of the Senate is over 60.

“For those of us who want to see a new generation of leaders, it’s hard,” Aimee Allison from She the People, a group dedicated to getting women of color in office, told KQED after Pelosi said she would run again. “We do need a new generation of leadership that looks like who lives in California, in the country. And that’s going to require people in their eighties to make space.”

The Senate has 100 members, two from each state. Eight politicians, including Feinstein, are from the “Silent Generation,” the label given to people born between 1928 and 1945. According to the Pew Research Center, 66 are Baby Boomers, the demographic cohort born between 1946 and 1964.

In the House, almost 45% of the 435 representatives are Baby Boomers. Twenty-one are from Feinstein’s generation.

“There’s a big gap between the age of the voting age population and the age of representatives. And the age of representatives are significantly older,” said Daniel Stockemer, a professor at the University of Ottawa who studies demographics in governments across the world.

Is the US an outlier among other countries?

“The U.S. is one of the oldest democracies when it comes to the representatives, or the members of Congress,” Stockemer said.

When Congress convened in January 2023, the average age of those serving in the House of Representatives was 58, according to Stockemer. In the Senate, the average age was 65.

“To give you the average age (of representatives) around the world, [it’s] around 50,” he said. “While representatives in nearly every country are older than the voting age population, the U.S. is a relatively extreme case.”

Stockemer also runs a database that tracks the ages of legislators, which the Financial Times analyzed in September, showing that the United States has the oldest representatives among G7 countries. According to Stockemer’s latest available data, the median age for U.S. legislators is 58. Japan’s most recent available data show the country was close behind at 57, in 2021.

In Canada, which set the mandatory retirement for senators at 75, the median age of lawmakers was 54 in 2021. In Germany, it was 49.

In the United Kingdom in 2019, the median age was 50. In both France and Italy in 2022, the median age was around 49.

Why is it hard for younger people to run for office?

Senior politicians can undoubtedly bring experience to their office, said Stockemer. It’s more that younger politicians need their spot too.

Stockemer said that his data “just showed that there are some discrepancies in representation [and] it might want to be addressed.” He frames it as “a deficit in democratic equality.”

The laws in the U.S. also prevent younger candidates from running, Stockemer pointed out. Candidates must be 25 to run for the House and 30 for the Senate. Also, getting elected requires networking and financing that is an inherent disadvantage for younger people.

“There’s basically no limit on how much candidates can spend, and they spend more and more each election,” Stockemer said. “It’s very hard for younger members to keep up. … They don’t have the connections yet.”

Incumbent politicians also have a major advantage in the U.S. since there is little turnover. Feinstein had been a senator since 1992.

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And this can lead to a cycle. When younger people are not represented, they don’t turn out to vote. Current politicians may not reach out to them when formulating their policies, because there is no incentive, Stockemer said.

The median age in the U.S. is just under 39. When policies are determined by a demographic that’s older on average than the population it serves, it can result in laws that are more geared to the interests of older people.

Stockemer points to the lack of age diversity among U.S. politicians as one of many reasons why the interests of younger generations, like environmental protections and student loan relief, may not be a priority in their decision-making.

“The best example would be gun control,” said Stockemer. “I would bet probably if you had a [Congress] that’s 20 years younger, there would be a higher chance that this is seriously taken up and a higher chance that there would be some serious laws.”

He acknowledged that age is of course not the only barrier to such change, given longstanding Republican opposition to gun control.

“We relate to people more who are the same age in general,” he said. “And the same is how we want to relate to politicians. That’s why senior people relate better to the current Congress, because it’s older.”


This story has been updated.

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