Congress is Getting Grayer…Because Millenials Are Losing Faith in Government


Written by Brad Bosserman

A recent survey conducted by Harvard University revealed that while 69 percent of 18-29 year olds believed community service was an honorable thing to do, only 35 percent felt that way about running for office. This has real ramifications for the make-up of our legislatures. A recent article in Salon explained that Congress is getting older not because incumbent members are sticking around longer, but because the age of incoming members is rising.

It is worth considering the impact of having telecommunications and Internet policy drafted by politicians who are still “learning to get online” and leaving foreign policy decisions to people whose views were shaped and developed during the Cold War. Stephen Marche made the case earlier this year that these trends have also led to “thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.” So where are the Millennials who should be beating down the doors to the Capitol?

Some have suggested that the absence of young people in elected office is all about economics. Older Americans have gone from out-earning their younger counterparts by 10 times in the mid-’80s to nearly 50 times in 2008. This migration of wealth from young to old has occurred alongside a dramatic growth in the cost of running a successful campaign, with political spending in House and Senate races increasing eight-fold between 1970 and 2000.

This alone does not seem to explain the systemic aging of our legislatures, however. The technology booms of the ’90s and aughts also produced a record number of young millionaires and billionaires. Yet they have chosen to stay out of elected office in far greater numbers than wealthy members of previous generations. Why?

I have a theory. The Millennial generation has come of age in an America influenced by a conservative ideology that changed our views about the role of public and private civil society. Heather McGhee, the Washington Director of Demos, has observed, “[T]he most pernicious effect of the Reagan revolution was to take the horizon of public policy solutions off the table entirely. We know that there are problems, but we no longer imagine that there are public policy solutions to them.” This is a profoundly different vision of American government than that which animated the New Deal and Great Society.

The modern Republican Party’s commitment to shrinking the size and scope of the public sector has led them to shake our confidence in key government institutions. The GOP has been able to convince the public that the government is corrupt and ineffective, in part by making the government corrupt and ineffective. This campaign has disproportionately affected the generation of young people who have been forging their views about politics over the last 15 years. Gallup reports that cynicism and negativity toward the government has been building for over a decade, recently culminating in “record or near-record criticism of Congress, elected officials, government handling of domestic problems, the scope of government power, and government waste of tax dollars.”

This phenomenon parallels another recent trend: the rise of the independent voter. Research has long shown that despite the conventional wisdom, self-identified independents actually behave much more like weak partisans than they do like hyper-informed mavericks. The ranks of these “independents” have grown dramatically over the last 20 years, and much of that growth has been concentrated among young Americans. In 2009, Gallup found “more than one-third of the youngest Americans identify as independents, a percentage that drops steadily as the population ages, reaching a low of around 20% among those 80 years of age and older.”

This is not entirely bad news. Even as they have lost faith in our political parties, young Americans have flocked to other forms of civic engagement. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that volunteer rates for 16- to 24-year-olds has nearly doubled over the last 20 years. In many ways, volunteerism has become second nature to the Millennial generation, taking the place of more traditional political involvement.

But the challenge remains for those who want to see young Americans in Congress. To reverse these trends, we must actively promote the belief that public policy and institutions of government have a powerful and positive role to play in American life. The graying of the House and Senate shows that allowing conservatives to demean public service, institutionalize gridlock, and breed public cynicism will drive away the young and idealistic. This vacuum hands power over to increasingly older politicians with entrenched views and distinct generational interests that do not represent the largest generation in American history.

This post was originally published by the Roosevelt Institute.


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Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola6 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Barbra D.
Barbra Drake6 years ago

I read comments on different forums and keep up with news reports on different media. You get the big picture when you look at everything, and communalities become apparent. I wholeheartedly agree with everything in this article. What I see is a coutry split idealogically down the middle, with one side of the split refusing compromise. A country devided against itself cannot stand. There are people in the streets, and people taking very overt action on both sides. There is building anger. What a shame that while now is the easiest time the ordinary citizen has had to participate fully in their government, many don't know how, and many think it will not accomplish anything if they do. A storm is coming.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

I will not be happy till I see computers take politicians jobs. They can replace me and you with computers, then why not them?
We should be voting for policies, not politicians. They have become our masters instead of our servants and put themselves in place of kings, and we revere them and put them on a pedestal, so then they act accordingly and we are surprised. And it's not as if the best ones win! It's a popularity contest played by the most unpopular people but because it's usually a two party democracy we have to choose the best of the worst. So we have finance ministers that know nothing about Finance! And people in charge of foreign policy that can't even understand basic geography!
We need direct democracy where we vote for policies and not politicians via computers, lottery machines whatever! 
Politics is a pernicious meme that has infiltrated our societies, a throwback to feudal times when the kings and the lords of the manor could have you killed, and they could send your children to war because of the squabbles of kings. 

Carl Oerke
Carl O6 years ago

After watching how negative politics has become since Newt Gingrich;s Republican Revolution can you blame them? We used to have statesmen now we have bureaucrats and politicians and lobbyists.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

“thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.” What an arrogant and insulting comment. This whole article is insulting to every person who has gray hair be they 35 or 100. It also insinuates that all the conservative radicals are older people. I would like to remind these fools, of the young Rand Paul, our Cuban friend in Florida that is thought to be our next Republican VP, how about Ryan, Bachmann and others. If you asked me most of the radicals in Congress are young.

Ted Kennedy wasn’t young but he was the most staunched liberal in Congress, other are Pelosi, Boxer, most in the Black Caucus, Hildebrand and others. I don’t care if Congress gets grayer, that’s the least of my worries. I worry that Congress gets more and more radical right-wing and destroys this country as we know it.

Please remember it was the boomers and those a little older that gave us the Civil Rights Law of 1964, the Voting Rights Act and other forward thinking legislation…when we were in our 20’s and 30’s. So rather than making excuses for Millennial generation let’s call it like it is…they are lazy and too much involve with their technological toys to care about this country or its citizens. If they want positive change let them make some sacrifices and worked for a better country and world. The older grayer generation did it…are the Mil

Duane B.
.6 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Maureen Hawkins
Maureen Hawkins6 years ago

William C. I'm mostly in agreement with what you say, but Socialism ISN'T "a form of government," it is an ECONOMIC system. You can have a democratic Socialist or Communist system (think Israeli kibbutzes--though if you're a country, you can expect a US-sponsored coup: think Allende's Chile) or a Socialist or Communist dictatorship (think Stalin's Russia) just as easily as you can have a democratic capitalist system (much like we like to think the US once was) or a capitalist dictatorship (think Hitler's Germany). The idea that Socialism is a POLITICAL system that is opposed to democracy is Cold War propaganda that still has people confused between political and economic systems.

William C.
William C.6 years ago

@Adam S."Whoever wrote this article stole these ideas from the Communist Manifesto."


ARE you that dumb?

Just talking about the importance of getting young people involved in politics, so we can FIX our problems, is Communism now ?

Volunteerism is Communist ?

YES, you REALLY are that DUMB !

Wake up, you idiot. You're just a parrot, and you've been trained to squawk "Communism, Socialism, Tea Party, Tea Party" over and over again !

There are people on the investment site I get my news from that insist that Google is Socialist because they produce the Android operating system and give it away.

You can TRY to explain to them that Google only does that to drive advertising revenue to their cash register, but they won't LISTEN.

You can TRY to explain that Socialism is a form of Government, not a form of commerce, but they won't LISTEN.

Because, like you, they've been well trained.

STOP believing whatever you HEAR.

START THINKING, you idiot !

Patrick King
Patrick King6 years ago

We have a problem attracting anyone competent to elected office. The vetting process is too hard on families. Any person who has the talent and has developed the skill of an executive can make more money in the private sector with the added advantage of being able to do what they want. Why would they risk embarrassing their families by exposing their personal errors to the community at large? Anyone who has gained power has made some foolish decisions along the way. We offer them $150 grand a year for possibly 8 years and place in the history books while they risk the respect of their families and the country at large. You'd have to be an idiot to run for public office today... and that's what we saw in the recent Republican primaries.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown6 years ago

T]he most pernicious effect of the Reagan revolution was to take the horizon of public policy solutions off the table entirely. We know that there are problems, but we no longer imagine that there are public policy solutions to them.” This is a profoundly different vision of American government than that which animated the New Deal and Great Society."

Wow, there is a lot of truth in that statement. It is the biggest con game the right has ever pulled on America. We are the most ungrateful country around. We greedily accept all of the benefits that government offers (from social security, to the Interstate Highway system) and bitch and moan about how horrible government is and do nothing to further the things built by the government in earlier generations. That is why we are falling behind the rest of the civilized world and entering a second "gilded age." If we keep it up we will again become a nation of the uber-rich and wage slaves.