Democracy in US Struggling with Aging Leaders

University of Gothenburg

People under the age of 30 constitute half of the world’s population. Previous research has shown that only 2 per cent of those with a seat in a legislative assembly are under 30 years old.

“The relative absence of young adults in politics could contribute to what we call the vicious cycle of political alienation among the young. It is marked by low numbers of younger people in parliaments, low voter turnouts and political disenchantment – factors that tend to feed and amplify each other,” explains Aksel Sundström, political scientist.

The under-representation of young adults is a major problem in the USA. In 2023, many of the most influential American politicians are significantly older than their voters. President Joe Biden has turned 80 and is the oldest president in US history; the Senate’s minority leader Mitch McConnell will be 81 soon and Donald Trump, who has declared his intention to run for president again, will turn 78 during the election campaign of 2024.

“For example, the average age of members of the House of Representatives in office from 2020 to 2022 was 58 years old, which is about 20 years older than the average American. And the age gap between voters and candidates has increased. Between 1981 and 2021, the average age of candidates rose by ten years.”

Few younger people nominated

It was previously unknown where exactly in the process young candidates disappeared from American elections. Consequently, Aksel Sundström and Daniel Stockemer, professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, set out to jointly study the nomination of candidates, the selection of candidates in the primaries, and the age of the candidates who won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2020. Their analysis was based on 1,661 candidates.

“Both Democrats and Republicans nominated a relatively small percentage of younger people in favour of middle-aged candidates. The average age of the selected candidates was 51.5 years. Only about 11 per cent of all the candidates were aged 35 or younger.”

In election campaigns, the younger candidates fared worse than the older candidates. The average age of the winners of primaries was 54, and the age of those who were ultimately elected to the House of Representatives was 58 on average.

“We see a strong connection between age and what we call election capital. This includes experience of previous elections and politics, support from the parties and being able to fund their campaigns. The parties often place younger candidates in electoral districts where they have little chance of winning, and this is problematic.”

Advanced age of leaders considered problematic

American voters do not actually prefer older candidates. Instead, older candidates are just the ones with more resources and they get to run in more winnable electoral districts than younger ones, often in districts where they have already been elected. Surveys in the USA indicate that Americans have nothing against younger candidates.

“According to a September 2022 poll by CBS News, 47 per cent responded that politics would improve if there were more younger people in politics. Another survey in the USA indicated that 9 out of 10 Americans feel that 75 should be the maximum age for serving as President.”

A global problem for democracy

Aksel Sundström and Daniel Stockemer have also studied the problem of the underrepresentation of younger people in democractically elected legislative assemblies globally, which they talk about in a new book. The book is the first to analyse the phenomenon and explains why younger people are more successful in winning seats in certain countries and within certain parties. The researchers point to a couple of factors that could lead to better representation of the young in positions of power. In many countries, including the USA, there are specific age thresholds for adults who can run for elections.

“In the US, that threshold is 25 for the House of Representatives and 30 for the Senate. In our opinion, these antiquated and arbitrary rules regarding age violate democratic principles. Ultimately, the message turns out to be that younger people are not welcome to participate in politics. Sweden is one of the very few examples of countries where younger people actually have a high presence in our Riksdag, our parliament,” Aksel Sundström explains.

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