Pass the torch!
That was the rallying cry of young presidential candidates like Congressman Eric Swalwell, Andrew Yang, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro this election season, who routinely used the debate stage to highlight the geriatric tendencies of their elder competitors. Instead, 78-year-old Joe Biden and 74-year-old Donald Trump faced off in the general election. Biden will be sworn in as the oldest President in American history later this month.
The Senate, too, suffers from a rapidly aging body of legislators. With an average age of 63 and five octogenarians—it will be seven later this year—among its membership, it’s no secret that the Senate is in need of younger blood. And on Tuesday evening, Jon Ossoff, at a spiffy 33 (he’s got six more years to make Fortune’s 40 under 40), provided just that. The former congressional staffer and investigative journalist will break through the wall of senior citizens to become the youngest member of the legislative body. Currently, Republican Josh Hawley holds the title at 41.
Throughout his campaign, Ossoff touted his youth as one of his “greatest strengths.” Young people, he said, could easily make up the largest voting bloc and swing elections consistently if they were inspired to come out to the polls. Currently, the Senate has no millennial representation, despite being America’s largest generation.
“We need to have perspectives in candidates that reflect the perspectives of a younger generation,” Ossoff told Katie Couric in a December interview. “Young people have demands and unmet needs. One thing I want to do is say that we can make change and enact legislation that will help.” Investment in clean energy, environmental action, real criminal justice reform, and college debt reform are issues that matter to millennials but get little attention in a Senate dominated by boomers and members of the Greatest Generation, he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, used Ossoff’s age and relative lack of governmental experience against him.
“Sen. David Perdue [Ossoff’s opponent] retired into the Senate. I will go into the Senate to work for the people of Georgia,” replied Ossoff. And energize he did. There’s always a drop-off in voter turnout between the general and runoff elections, but the pace of voting in Georgia this time around was on track to hit a very healthy 4 million votes. He also motivated many to open their wallets, setting record after record with his fundraising hauls. He even used TikTok to court young voters.
The Senate’s age problem, counterintuitively, doesn’t have as much to do with legislators who stick around well past retirement age—the average time spent in the Capitol is just over 10 years, less than two terms—but with incoming senators. In 2018, the average age of newly elected members was 58.1 years old. It’s not that voters favor age, but political parties tend to run candidates who have years of experience and are seen as safe bets. Ossoff’s win could motivate party leadership to look toward younger candidates in 2022 and beyond.
The Senate hasn’t always been teetering on elderly: The average age of incoming senators in 1995, 1981, and 1975 was below 50 years old. The President-elect himself was just 30 when he was elected to represent Delaware; his campaign centered around his fresh perspective. “Joe Biden,” the bottom of each of his campaign ads read, “he understands what’s happening today.”