Graying politicians across Kansas, U.S. hoard power. A volatile world warrants youthful leadership.

September 15, 2023 3:33 am
Research involving University of Kansas researchers indicates heavily partisan corporate CEOs tend to bend forecasts to reflect political bias in terms of the occupant of the White House. Here, then-President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden debate in the 2020 campaign won by Biden. (Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden celebrated his 80th birthday late last year. Former president Trump turned 77 this summer. Each man plans to run for president again next year. (Getty Images)

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

All of a sudden, cracks have spread across the formerly invulnerable wall of U.S. gerontocracy.

In case you didn’t know, “gerontocracy” means a society ruled by the elderly. President Joe Biden hit 80 in November, and challenger Donald Trump follows close behind at age 77. Polling shows that the public sees Biden’s age as a hindrance, and no wonder. Modern political coverage reads like bulletins from a particularly Machiavellian senior center.

Over in the Senate, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, has twice frozen at news conferences, apparently suffering the aftereffects of a concussion. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, has struggled with memory problems and a host of health issues. Utah Sen Mitt Romney, still robust, has called on both Biden and Trump to step aside for the common good. Regardless of his apparent vitality, Romney is 76 and announced retirement plans this week.

We need perspective from veteran politicians in government, no doubt. But couldn’t we find a few leaders who didn’t qualify for AARP 30 years ago? As our country tries to engage more young people in civic life, perhaps they deserve the chance to vote for folks who look like them.

Dustin Morris, chairman of Kansas Young Republicans, highlighted Romney’s willingness to cede the stage to a new generation.

“Whether it’s local politicians doing that or local political activists doing that, there needs to be an investment,” he told Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith. “Say it was the next crop of folks we want to see lead. We’re going to put them in the leadership positions, whether that’s precinct committee levels, national committee levels, you name it.”

Across the aisle, Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow of Michigan told Slate: “The reality is that our Congress and our federal officials, on average, are significantly older than most of the population.” She had previously written a series of Tweets on the subject.

She added: “It really, to me, sends the wrong message that we keep pushing for work-life balance and earning your retirement, but at the same time, there is this very American ideal of defying expectations and working quite literally until you die.”


Gov. Laura Kelly, the second-term Democrat, said on the Kansas Reflector podcast she formed a political action committee to support moderate Republican and Democratic candidates for the Legislature in 2024. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly, a second-term Democrat, is 73 years old. Lt. Gov. David Toland, on the other hand, is 46. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas breakdown

So what’s the situation here in Kansas?

As it happens, I did the math earlier this year. While our state doesn’t reflect the extremes of Washington, D.C., many of our leaders have either passed retirement age or will soon.

For source data, we can look to longtime journalist Martin Hawver’s Kansas Legislative Guide for the 2023 session, which ran from January to April. Hawver subsequently retired himself, but the guide includes birthdays for 125 representatives and 40 senators. With the caveat that membership shifts from time to time, here is what I turned up for each chamber.

The average — or mean — birth year in the Kansas Senate was 1962. That means the average senator for last session was 61 years old. The median birth year — the one in the middle of all the values — was 1960. That means the median senator in the last session was 63.

Let’s turn to the slightly younger Kansas House. The average birth year there was 1965, making the average representative 58 years old. The median birth year was 1962, making the median age 61.

For each legislative body, the slightly older median age makes the most sense as a reference point. A handful of outliers can throw off averages.

Let’s put these ages in perspective.

That means the median senator was 47 years old when the first iPhone went on sale in 2007; the median representative was 45.

The median senator could first vote for president in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan ran against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. The median representative could, depending on his or her birthday, vote in that 1980 election as well.

Looking at statewide offices, Gov. Laura Kelly is 73, while Lt. Gov. David Toland is a sprightly 46. Secretary of State Scott Schwab is 51, while Attorney General Kris Kobach is 57. Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt — yes, that’s a statewide office too — turns 68 today.

The folks we send to Washington, D.C., range in age from U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran at 69 to U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner at 35 (also the first person mentioned here who’s younger than me). U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall is 63, U.S. Rep. Ron Estes is 67, U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann is 46, and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids is 43.


Signage at an early voting center on September 23, 2016, in Minneapolis, Minnesota
While big-name political races dominate the headlines, young people have the opportunity to make their biggest impact at the local level. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Life experience

Age matters.

But not in the way you might think. Yes, folks like Feinstein should find a path to gracefully exit the political stage. You can reach a point when, regardless of how much you might want to do the job, your faculties simply don’t allow it. Reporting suggests that both Biden and Trump remain energetic and alert for their age, although each has appeared more robust in the past.

No, age matters because your life experience matters. The number of years ahead of you matters. Someone who came of age in the 1960s has formed a different mental model of the world than someone who came of age in the 1990s or 2000s. What you could expect from your family, education and career varies depends on those decades. The news you follow, the trends you worry about, the people you make friends with — all can shift depending on your age.

Climate change serves as the most obvious example. The worst effects of a warming world won’t hit until our oldest politicians have headed off to filibuster in the great beyond.

Other examples spring to mind, too. Artificial intelligence, while something of a novelty at present, holds the potential to disrupt society. That disruption, however, may come in a decade or two.

How many senior politicians truly grasp these issues — or even want to?

It’s possible. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, no spring chicken himself at 82 years old, attracted fervent youth support because of his take on income inequality. Sanders could see beyond the time horizon of his own life and understand that an economy that enriches the already wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class won’t survive. Former reality TV star Trump engaged a new group of GOP voters, including a chunk of young people.

Morris suggests, however, that fresh voters might want to focus on local officeholders. That’s where they can make an immediate difference.

“Your city council member, or person that sits on your water board, actually has more influence over your day-to-day life than the guy sitting in the Oval Office,” he said. “Whether it’s Joe Biden or Trump, that’s a far-off figure that you can never really connect with. It’s much easier to say you’ve met your city council member, or your school board member, and can take them out to coffee.”

Whatever the level and whatever their ideology, young voters and youthful politicians demand recognition.

They can imagine a different, better world. Their minds haven’t been limited by decades of day-to-day grind.

They get a lot wrong, sure. They may aim for the impossible. But I’m sure veteran lawmakers will be more than willing to offer advice.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.