One widely mocked tweet after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory — posing the question “Should we elect more millennials to Congress?” — drew some world-weary responses.
This millennial killed it at the polls.
Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, upended the political establishment last month, handily beating 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 14th district. The Bronx-born Ocasio-Cortez, who is expected to win the seat in November’s midterm election, would become the youngest-ever woman to serve in Congress at age 29.
Her victory spurred many a conversation about age, especially given the 56-year-old likely successor to Nancy Pelosi she had unseated. And one widely mocked tweet from the Alabama news site AL.com — posing the question “Should we elect more millennials to Congress?” — drew some world-weary responses.
“The median age of someone in the Millennial generation is about 30. Millennials have fought in two wars not of our own making, powered through an economic collapse not of our own doing, pay taxes, have kids and contribute into your Social Security,” tweeted Charlotte Clymer of the Human Rights Campaign. “What the hell is this question?”
“At what point do people stop thinking millennial is synonymous with teen?” added “Hey Ladies!” author Caroline Moss, whose tweet racked up 97,000 likes. “Yes we should elect more people in their 20s and 30s to Congress. It’s not a wild idea.”
Part of the problem may be branding. “Millennials are not 12,” Jennifer Lawless, the Commonwealth professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a former congressional candidate, told Moneyish. “I think to some extent the label is doing them somewhat of a disservice, because they’re beyond old enough to run for these positions in a very respectable way.”
Millennials, defined by Pew Research Center as those aged 22 to 37 in 2018, are projected to overtake Baby Boomers (aged 54 to 72) as America’s largest living generation next year. They’re also approaching Boomers in their share of the American electorate, according to Pew, making up 27% of the voting-eligible population in 2016 compared to Boomers’ 31%. (Turnout is another story: 51% of millennials came out to the polls in 2016, compared to 61% of the overall electorate.)
And while the median U.S. age was 37.9 in 2016, the average age of a House representative last year was 58, and average age in the Senate was 62. (The age requirement is 25 to serve in the House and 30 for the Senate.) A majority (63%) of the 115th Congress is made up of Baby Boomers, followed by Generation X (23%) and the Silent Generation (11%), according to Roll Call. Millennials comprise just 2%. More than 200 millennials from both major parties either have run or are running for Congress during the current cycle, according to the Millennial Action Project.
“Our public bodies should represent America,” said 62-year-old Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city (Houston) and current president and CEO of the Victory Fund, a national organization that works to elect LGBTQ public officials. “Our elective bodies skew older, they skew male, and they skew wealthy, and that influences public policy. So to the question of should there be more millennials in public office — yes, if we want a real representative democracy.”
Millennials are poised to “fundamentally change the makeup of our government for better, by bringing their experiences and perspectives to the conversation,” added Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of the nonpartisan group She Should Run, which works to boost the number of women running for office.
For instance, they might be driven by policy issues that hit close to home. Take debt: Three in four millennials report being in some type of debt, according to an NBC News/GenForward survey released in April, with a quarter of them more than $30,000 in the hole. Forty-six percent said they were in credit card debt, while 36% said they had student loan debt.
“The personal experience of carrying that debt means something,” said Lawless, 43, pointing to students of hers who’ve had to weigh a career versus graduate school. “I think that those kinds of tradeoffs are something that people who are 50 years old — or certainly people who are 75 years old — might be able to sympathize with, but might not actually be able to understand on a personal level.”
Young people offer an opportunity to help level the playing field with regards to women’s representation, Cutraro added. (Women occupy just one-fifth of the 535 congressional seats, despite comprising slightly over half the U.S. population.) A record 468 women have filed to run for House seats, 311 of whom are still in the running, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
“I think as we continue to see younger generations running for office, we’re seeing that gender gap not disappear — we’re not there yet — but become less wide,” Cutraro said. “It’s not specific to millennial women, but women have unique experiences in life. It’s incredibly important that we see that represented for all generations, and we have a real opportunity in this surge of candidates who are millennial to really close the gender gap there.”
Lawless highlighted the issue of reproductive rights, with the possibility of the next Supreme Court justice helping overturn Roe v. Wade. “Millennial women have never lived under a system in which abortion was not legal,” she said. “So I think that their experiences … and the way that they’ve grown up and the kinds of reproductive choices they’ve made are shaped by the availability of a women’s right to choose.”
Then there’s the fact that young folks serving in Congress, regardless of generation or party, isn’t a particularly novel concept: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who would become the youngest House speaker in more than 100 years, joined Congress in 1999 at age 28. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), known for his advocacy on mental health and addiction, began his term in 1995 at age 27. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who would ultimately resign amid scandal, was 27 when he took his seat in 2009. And former Vice President Joe Biden became a U.S. senator from Delaware at age 30.
“Over time, you can pluck out (of) any given decade a couple of these really young people who were motivated to go and to serve,” Lawless said. “We’ve had young people who have managed to navigate the institution, and to do it quite well.” (Her 2015 research, meanwhile, found that a majority of young people were turned off to politics and wouldn’t consider running for office.)
But fresh faces don’t necessarily have to be young ones, experts stress. “The best public officials are hardworking, open-minded, good listeners, and problem solvers. That’s not an age; that’s an attitude,” Parker said. “And we should be looking for these problem solvers who are willing to work to make America better, whatever their demographic identification is.”
What’s most important is work ethic and a willingness to solve problems, she added. “Clearly, that’s something that Ocasio-Cortez used — she walked and she talked and she listened, and voters felt that she cared,” Parker said. “And that was what mattered.”