6 charts that explain the United States' march toward gerontocracy

A hand lighting a candle on a birthday cake that has the Capitol building on top of it.
Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/Rebecca Zisser/Insider

America has always been governed by a class of political leaders older than the population. This has largely been the case going back to the early 1800s, when the median age of America was about 17 years old — and the median age of a member of Congress was 44. For the bulk of the 19th and 20th centuries, the country has gradually aged as Congress has gradually aged.

But then, in the early 1990s, something changed. Congress began getting much older, much faster. This chart shows how Congress and federal judges have gotten older over time, from the founding of our nation until today.


Today, about a quarter of Congress is over the age of 70, the highest percentage ever. At the same time, while half the country is aged 38 or younger, just 5 percent of Congress can say the same.

It wasn't just that the oldest members of Congress were getting older. Even the younger members of Congress were, on balance, getting older — driving up the average age of a member of Congress past 60. From 1950 to 1990, an average of 10% of Congress was under the age of 40. This got as high as 17% in the early 1980s. But today, as older members stay longer, the average has been just 4% since 2000.

This effect isn't just seen in the legislature. The federal judiciary has become evermore aged. In analyzing the full judiciary — active judges as well as senior-status judges who have semi-retired but still may carry full caseloads well into their twilight years — the median age of judges and justices is the highest in history. And rising.

The Trump and Biden years have been an anomaly: It's rare for a president to be the oldest person in his administration, even when the president is somewhat advanced in age.

The age of the Cabinet — an unelected group of top executive branch officials appointed by the president — has remained fairly steady over the past several decades. But for the past several years, the president has been significantly older than the average member of his Cabinet.

What's causing this remarkable upswing in the age of the government? In "Red, White, and Gray," Insider is deciphering America's march toward gerontocracy through the lenses of power, incumbency, money, redistricting, and ego. We assess what it means for a youthful nation to be led by leaders who have already lived most of their years.


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