Why you should care
Because the electorate is getting younger, and so should our presidents.
Much has changed since the Constitution was written in 1787. America has witnessed the advent of steam engines and microchips, the abolition of slavery and a doubling of life expectancy — which in the late-18th century tapped out at around age 40.
Here’s something that hasn’t changed: our adherence to the constitutional clause that requires presidents to be 35 or older. When we look to the leading parties’ nominees, we don’t just see a misogynistic lunatic and a Democrat. We see a 70-year-old and a 69-year-old with a demonstrated ability to maneuver in (and around) a democracy that many voters no longer trust. Article II, Section 1, Clause 5: You’ve let us down.
Allegedly, the clause was meant to not just ensure our presidents had a certain level of maturity (or, perhaps relatedly, to exclude young Alexander Hamilton from the White House). It was a safeguard against monarchy and, more generally, hereditary rule. Remember the whole fleeing-the-crown-in-England thing? But one look at the political landscape suggests that clause hasn’t done such a great job at preventing family rule. Indeed, should we see a two-term Clinton presidency, it’d mean two American families controlled the White House for 28 out of 36 years.
Arguably, the clause has instead abetted a reverse ageism in the halls of power, signaling, as it does, that those under 35 lack the maturity for the most important of jobs. Congress has its own age floors (30 for the Senate, 25 for the House), and only 27 congressmen and congresswomen, out of 435, are under 40. It’s strange: There’s plenty of public talk about diversity in gender and race, but even though millennials now match boomers as the largest slice of the electorate, there’s hardly any talk about age diversity.
What does this mean for policy? The most pressing issues for millennials — student debt, parental leave, asset creation — are being addressed (or not addressed) by people who no longer worry about such matters. “Young people get screwed by the federal budget, in part because there aren’t more young people” in office, says Alexandra Acker-Lyons, a political consultant on millennials and the youth vote. “We’re spending a lot of more money caring for a shrinking population than investing in a future generation,” says Acker-Lyons. Shouldn’t we be represented equally in our country’s decision-making bodies?
We’re not the only ones thinking this way. This summer, rum maker Captain Morgan started a whole campaign on abolishing the presidential age floor, citing a litany of folks who achieved bigly under the age of 35: Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at 34, and Joan of Arc led her campaign at 19. But you need not look to history: Mark Zuckerberg, who has done more than anyone else to revolutionize how we think about community (and became a gazillionaire in the process) is all of 32.
To be sure, certain experiences come only with age. But that’s not always a good thing: In fact, the more experienced you are, especially in politics, the more likely you are to hesitate stepping outside of party dogma. The longer you’re in an institution, the more calcified you become. Indeed, research has shown that millennials are more likely to work in bipartisan ways, Acker-Lyons says. Meanwhile, the biggest Beltway criticism is that it’s stodgy old party politics and the dreaded “establishment.”
Do you think millennials should leave the power to the adults? Have you had enough of the aging establishment? Let us know in the comments.