Viewpoint: Washington Is a Gerontocracy

A 20-something can be the CEO of a billion-dollar company but can't run for the Senate. That doesn't make sense

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Mel Evans / AP, Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for The Webby Awards

Senator Frank Lautenberg, left, who died in office at age 89, and David Karp, the 25-year-old founder of Tumblr

Last month, 26-year-old high school dropout David Karp became the latest 20-something tech billionaire with Yahoo’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr, the microblogging site Karp founded out of his mother’s New York City apartment.

Karp joins a long line of young American innovators who disrupted industries and changed the way that things had always been done. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Warren Buffett — all of them made their mark on the world before their 30th birthdays. Andrew Ross Sorkin pays homage to this youthful entrepreneurialism in this week’s T magazine, noting that “the number of people in their mid-20s disrupting entire industries, taking on jobs usually reserved for people twice their age and doing it in the glare of millions of social media ‘followers’ seems to be growing almost exponentially.”

(MORE: Chelsea Clinton: Four Myths About Millennials)

But if any of these wunderkinder want to direct their powerful young minds toward governing the country, they will have to wait a few years. While nearly every other market appreciates, and even reveres, the contributions of young talent, the U.S. Constitution puts strict age requirements on running for elected federal office: candidates must be 25 years old to run for the House of Representatives, 30 for the Senate and 35 for the presidency.

The result is that Capitol Hill remains at least a generation behind the rest of the country. In the 113th Congress, elected in 2012, the average age in the House is 57, and the average age in the Senate is 62. That’s only marginally younger than the 111th Congress, the oldest ever elected in the history of the U.S.: the average age in the House was 57, and the average age in the Senate was 63. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died June 3 at 89, was the 298th Senator to die in office. Of the 22 Senators who have died in office since 1970, 16 were over 70.

The age of the Senate has been a frequent source of mockery. After the 2012 fiscal-cliff debate, U.S. Representative Steve LaTourette (R., Ohio) urged colleagues not to accept “a package put together by a bunch of sleep-deprived octogenarians on New Year’s Eve.”

Geriatric jokes aside, there is a serious downside to barring young people from seeking federal office: with the public debate determined and dominated by senior citizens, the country doesn’t get to hear from — and vote for — the interests of young adults, a phenomenon that Pomona College politics professor John Seery calls “generational guardianship.” In his book Too Young to Run?: A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Seery writes that the age restrictions imposed by the Constitution lower the incentive for young adults to participate in what is supposed to be a representative democracy. The system would be better served, he argues, if every grownup American were given the “twin pillars of enfranchisement”: the right to vote and the right to run for office.

(MORE: The Millennial Generation Can Lead Us Out of Gridlock)

But Congress itself could also benefit from opening federal ballots to younger Americans. As the rest of the country reaps rewards from the hard work and collective brainpower of Generations X and Y, Congress is struggling to keep up, spinning its wheels in a bygone era when people thought the Internet was a “series of tubes.”

Of course, there are advantages to having elected officials with the experience and institutional knowledge that come only with age. But the world is changing quickly, and Capitol Hill could probably take some cues from people who aren’t afraid to move fast and break a few things.

15 comments
cjh2nd
cjh2nd

"Grace Wyler is a journalist and former politics editor for Business Insider. The views expressed are solely her own" 

and they're solely moronic



cjh2nd
cjh2nd

being able to make web apps, understand computers, or buy real estate doesn't qualify you in the least to run for public office. i don't give a $hit how rich someone is, that's not a qualification for public office. this is asinine logic

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

As a former Social Studies / History teacher, I would offer the following commentary on this article:

1) Washington, D.C. has indeed become a 'gerontocracy,' because the U.S. political structure is setup for that outcome.  Any basic U.S. Civics or Political Science textbook dictates thats the goal of any and every politician is that of Incumbency.  Boiled down, that means every politician's goal is to be re-elected until they lose interest in serving.  As in any political system, some politicians are better than others at securing and re-securing their power, and thereby attaining that incumbency.  The U.S. democratic model is no different.

2) Given #1, at this point in time, U.S. politics is filled with multi-term incumbents who have managed to hold fast to their positions of power.  To those who follow and (claim to) know politics, this should come as no surprise.

3) For those who do follow and know politics (myself included), this article is essentially a restatement of 'the sky is blue'-obvious truth of politics:  As long as incumbency is the goal, one can (and should) expect our gerontocratic Congress to stay as such for some time to come.

lbjack
lbjack

Grace Wyler's adolescent screed is the best argument against letting adolescents run the nation. 

"Capitol Hill remains at least a generation behind the rest of the country."

If she were capable of adult thining, little Grace would realize that age places AHEAD, not behind.  

So, 25 is too old to be in the House?  What should be the age, then?  17?  Ah yes, 17-year-olds are sooooo wise. 

The last time we let adolescents take over we got the 60s and its aftermath, which we are still suffering.  Actually, adolescents -- because of their stupidity, credulity and vanity -- have been ruling since they became the target demographic of commercial mass media.  You don't think there's a connection between this and the dumbing down of America?

That's right, little Grace and her fellow infants aren't afraid of breaking things.  Like Kipling's monkey people, the Bandar-log, they only break things for the sake of breaking them.  Come to think of it, that describes the media who publish her tripe as well.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

They have carefully gerrymandered the nation and bought our votes with our money. We would like to blame them, but if we had any integrity we wouldn't allow our votes to be bought.


The only solution I see is district maps drawn and chosen by lot or the toss of a coin.

ray3121970
ray3121970

One reason we don't want to encourage people to vote for "young people" is because they are prone to immature reasoning, as the young writer of this little thought burp illustrates. Just because there are a few people in their 20s who have made ridiculously large amounts of money from technology that people do not properly understand (and therefore tend to vastly overvalue -- Facebook, to name just one), doesn't mean that they have anything like the emotional or intellectual maturity - not to mention the life experience - to make public policy decisions that affect many people's lives. In fact, the idea that making money alone qualifies anyone for this is also a typical error in American society. Thankfully, people vote for people who -- as the writer acknowledges but doesn't understand -- are well above the minimum age on average because in general people are wise enough to understand that you need political representatives with life experience who come from various walks of life. What would the tumblr kid know about childcare, education, welfare, even job creation?

StevieP
StevieP

No, no, no...entrepreneurial thinking is great for business start-ups and inventors, but not great for governance.  Governing requires a different skill-set altogether, and it turns out the calmer, stabler temperament that comes with age bolsters this.  Also, and you may not have noticed, but most of the lunatics who are happy to blow themselves up for causes are in their 20s.  Please dear God, do not turn the country over to 20-somethings.  A couple of prodigious 20-something wunderkinds does not a generation make.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

He may have a billion dollars, but without a high school diploma, he will always be a loser.

signoraferrari
signoraferrari

While I agree that the age limit does not make sense today, it did when the Constitution was written.  Our founders were so afraid of a return to monarchy that they added age as a way to limit the offspring of founders from being able to start a dynasty..  Old enough to fight old enough to vote old enough to be elected.

BobJan
BobJan

@ray3121970 what would Romney know either? life experiences? Private schools, monied family, Ivy league education. It seems that with those types of life experiences all you'd end up with is private schools, monied families and Ivy league educations. Those aren't real life experiences. To me, real life experiences would be a young man or woman who worked their way through their education. Served time in the military. Maybe have some war time military to boot. Work their way up in a company. To me that would be real life experiences. Neither the tumbl'r kid or someone like a Romney have any real life experience. Sounds more like Mitt in Wonderland. We used to have Congressional representatives that had war experiences, not any more. The only experience they have now is mansions, lavish vacations from monied donors, and chauffeurs.

BobJan
BobJan

@dakinsky don't be so smug as to think you would have gotten anywhere with the "Paid for by Romney for America". Our country has been taken over by the monied elite and you think you still have a chance. You think that by bad-mouthing Obama it would somehow be different if Romney were in charge. If Romney were to be president him and his friends would just be making a higher return on their investment than what Obama gives them. Both parties are very bad.

ray3121970
ray3121970

@BobJan @ray3121970 You're argument is a non sequitur. I never said anything about Romney -- nor did I say that having the life experiences that someone who is, let's say, 40 or older qualifies you. I simply said that a) just making does not qualify you (which could be applied to Romney - in other words, just the fact that he made money in no way made him qualified to know what's best for the country in terms of public policy) and b) being in your 20s is likely to mean that you haven't acquired enough emotional or intellectual maturity, or life experience, to make you a good public representative.

StephanieP
StephanieP

@BobJan @ray3121970 While I agree that an unusually cushy life is probably not the best teacher for understanding how the world works, if that experience or understanding is never sought after, who is anyone to say what life experience is "real" or not? Or which kind is best?

I'd argue there isn't a single person "qualified" to make decisions about the whole range of issues.

Sure, a parent can speak to childcare, but if he never owned a business, who's he to talk about job creation? Etc., etc...

To say that combat experience is the highest or best type of life experience doesn't make a shred of sense, either. Noble? Yes. But experience in war is associated with a crazy-high rate of mental illness as well, and can't really help with the job creation issue, either. So I don't understand why you'd act like it is all-encompassing.

I think the best thing we could ever do is look for smart people (in the most basic sense of the word, like IQ) and who enthusiastically welcome counsel and information. People who can grasp the whole of a big issue, but also know where their particular blinders are.

BobJan
BobJan

@ray3121970 @BobJan I agree. I was just sort of rambling. Most people think that if you can make money you can run the country. To me it doesn't mean squat. I'd much rather have a person in command that has real life experiences and making money isn't one of them. Bernanke does it all day long. Have a good day.