Capitol Hill from ground level with a cloudy sky.
Design by Samantha Sweig.

As college students, we must consider a number of factors before deciding what career path to choose. There’s the money, the power and the prestige. Maybe you consider the impact you could have on the world, or the employability of different sectors in a post-pandemic economy. There’s tremendous pressure on us to find the right fit, but the factor we may not consider is a career’s expected retirement age. I would assume that most people hope to retire as early as possible and enjoy the rest of their years outside the workforce. That’s all anyone could ask for, really. Why is it, then, that politicians don’t seem to feel the same?

The average American expects to retire at the age of 65, but the median age of retirement is actually three years younger, based on the findings of a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. There are 198 members of the 118th Congress, or 36.6% of the entire body, that are over the expected retirement age of 65. The median age in the Senate is 65.3 years, a number that has been steadily climbing each year. Conversely, the average American this body is said to represent is 38.9 years old

There is a perceived notion that elderly lawmakers care only about their own power and interests, instead of effective governance. That argument would explain why elderly lawmakers choose not to step down and retire. Individual members of Congress could be choosing not to retire for the same reasons as any other person. A study published in BMC Public Health found the factors that most contribute to retirement timing are demographics, health, social participation, work characteristics, financial pressures, retirement preferences and overall macro factors.

The age of our representatives has been the subject of debates all over the United States recently. In an effort to make legislatures more representative and responsive to their constituents, term limits have emerged as a possible solution. Opponents of term limits argue that the election process is enough to dictate what ages are acceptable for representatives, and that experience among members of Congress is necessary for legislative efficiency. Some argue for age limits rather than term limits, concerned less about years in office and more about years on Earth. A CBS poll found that 73% of people think that there should be age limits for elected officials, with there being little difference in responses between political parties.

I do not plan to give my two cents on either of these topics. My contention, rather, is that the advanced ages of our elected officials indicate a flaw in the U.S. system of governance. Addressing this flaw could pave the way for more effective measures.

When lawmakers do retire, members of their party often greet it with concern. When older and more experienced members step down, they take their years of experience and institutional knowledge with them, creating fears of gridlock in the legislative process. It makes sense — in any work environment, the most senior employees will have experience that makes them more efficient at the job than someone just starting out. 

These newly elected officials — on top of trying to get legislation passed — have a lot on their plate: learning the rules of the road, creating relationships and building a network, figuring out who to talk to and who NOT to talk to, trying to navigate relationships with their constituents, building a reputation to make a good impression and so many other factors that go into being a newly elected official. All this while also trying to get legislation passed. 

The Congressional Management Foundation is the go-to resource for incoming members of Congress. It offers webinars in a training series specifically tailored to freshman Congresspeople, as well as general workplace training programs. While many elected members have some sort of experience before assuming the role, this training doesn’t offer insight on interpersonal relationships that occur in Congress that someone who has been working there for years would have insight on.

A study done by the Center for Effective Lawmaking found that new members of Congress enjoy plenty of benefits when they hire experienced legislative staff right from the beginning, and the authors argue that providing these new members with an experienced staff is the best way to help new members succeed. Beyond a possible webinar that a member can attend, being surrounded by people who actually know what they’re doing and who help the new member adapt and learn seems like the best possible option.

Having experienced people around new members could also include senior members of Congress who have stepped down from their positions. They should use their experience to aid the new member in taking their seat.

Mentorship in Congress is nothing new, really. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and other members with children give advice on the balance between being a mother and a member of Congress. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., gives five “Tips for new members of Congress,” and he discusses how overwhelming being a freshman member of Congress was. So, instead of just webinars and speeches given to the entirety of the freshman members, Congresspeople should receive one-on-one advice from someone who knows what it is like to be a representative of a given state.

This is not to say that I think that every elected official over the age of 65 needs to retire immediately. Moreover, there needs to be a sense of accountability about how best these representatives can serve the country and understanding that sometimes we’re just not doing it right. Sometimes the best thing to do is to take a step back. So, to all the elderly politicians, follow in Sen. Mitt Romney’s, R-Utah, footsteps and consider retiring to leave room for “a new generation of leaders,” and maybe even help them along the way.

Jamie Murray is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at jamiemu@umich.edu.