Age and perception

We’ve long thought that much of what makes legislatures potentially powerfully useful – we’re talking potential here, not always reality – is the number of varied viewpoints that can be brought to bear in the process of legislating. Not simply the fact that we have a hundred or so people rather than two or three: If that crowd thinks alike, then they may as well be two or three, or one.

(We explored that a bit recently on a personal level. Your scribe was asked to join the board of a local arts organization, and agreed, partly on grounds that his background would be distinctive from most other members, and therefore possibly useful in bringing fresh perspective to the table. One hopes.)

That point cuts a variety of ways, but today’s post has to do with age: Of these hundred or so people in a state legislature (10 less in Oregon, five more in Idaho, 47 more in Washington), how varied is the experience these people bring to the game? Thanks to an analysis by the Scripps Howard newspapers, we have statistics to examine. (The take of that effort focused on the arrival of the baby-boomers; our look here is more cross-generational.) Based on those numbers, here’s a chart of the birth-years of the legislators in several states, with percentages of membership noted.

State 1906-24 1925-45 1946-64 1965-83
Idaho 5 55 39 2
Oregon 0 30 62 9
Washington 1 38 52 10
Montana 1 32 57 10
Utah 3 27 63 7
California 3 33 58 6
Nevada 3 27 58 12
Texas 1 28 60 11
Florida 0 24 59 17
New York 3 30 60 7
Ohio 1 19 62 18

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The first thing we should note is that, when all ages are factored in, Idaho’s legislature is on average the oldest in the country, while Oregon’s and Washington’s are relatively unremarkable middlings.

But there’s more to say than that. Idaho does not have the largest percentage among the oldest cohort; there, New Hampshire leads with 9%, and Delaware with 8%. And Idaho is only the second-smallest in representation from the post-boomer crowd (North Dakota has only 1% from that group). But taken as a whole, the age difference between Idaho and most other states is striking. And it ought to be some cause for concern.

To be clear, our point isn’t that substantial experience is valueless; certainly not. The Idaho State Journal, writing about the Scripps study, noted that Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch, whose background in the statehouse runs 33 years, has noted the value of having some “gray hairs” in the process, and he’s right. The depth of experience, and often maturity, that someone like Risch (or, say, Oregon’s Senate President Peter Courtney) brings to the table is a highly useful asset. (It’s a key reason we’ve never much liked term limits.)

It’s not the only useful asset. When Idaho Representative Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, who is 69, remarked that “there’s a lot of merit coming in to make laws if you have personal experience,” he may not have reflected that experience comes in many kinds of packages, and isn’t always best measured in numbers of years. A 40-year-old who has lived in a variety of places, traveled widely, tried several professions (and so on) may have accumulated more useful life experience than a 70-year-old who stayed in one place, ended his personal education upon receiving a diploma, and worked at one thing most of his life. (Not to belittle anyone: A sprinkling of both perspectives can be useful in legislating.)

There’s also such a thing as formative experience: We tend to shape our views of the world from the time we grow up and become adults. The viewpoint of a 25-year-old may be simply alien to a 65-year-old today, even if they live in the same community share many things. Their minds work differently. (If you doubt that, watch the reactions when you ask a 10-year-old and then a 60-year-old about programming a cell phone.) And legislating is enhanced by bringing in more, not fewer, ways of thinking.

The point of concern about the Idaho Legislature isn’t the number of older members as much as the near-absence of younger ones. Legislatures aren’t ordinarily places young adults hang a lot, but nationally 12% of state legislators are about 40 or under, and about 10% in Washington and Oregon – to Idaho’s 2%. (The legislatures at Ohio and Michigan, where the younger numbers are nearly double that, must be fascinating.) They add not only an energy but also a different kind of world view. And it is, after all, their age group that has more at stake – they’re working on creating a world in which they will be living for a longer time. (You could see some of that in the press conference held Monday by the five under-35ers in the Oregon House.)

A point to consider as the parties begin recruiting for the next rounds of legislative candidates next time around.

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