Millennial Representation Lacking in State Legislatures
Diversity in leadership is vital to an effective and representative government that understands the needs of all its constituents. However, despite being the largest age demographic in the United States, millennials are few and far between in statehouses across the country. In many states, the average age of a legislator is significantly older than the average age of the state’s population. This discrepancy might cause misrepresentation of the population’s policy interests, resulting in unmet needs for millennials.
A December 2015 joint study by the Pew Research Center and the National Conference of State Legislatures found the average age of a state legislator is 56, nine years above the average age of an adult in the United States. Baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, continue to make up the majority of state legislators, while millennials, born between 1981 and 1997, are underrepresented in statehouses, holding just 5 percent of seats despite making up 31 percent of the voting population.
New Hampshire has the most disproportionate representation based on age, with an average age for legislators of 65, compared to an average population age of 48. Michigan and Florida have the smallest age gap, with only two years separating the average age of legislators and the average age of the population.
West Virginia, home of the United States’ youngest legislator, 19-year-old Rep. Saira Blair, has a moderate age disproportion—the average age of a legislator is 56 and the average age of the population is 49. West Virginia is tied with Maine and Florida for having the oldest populations in the United States, so Blair feels West Virginia’s eight millennials in their 100 seat legislature exemplifies a relatively fair representation. She noted that West Virginia’s millennial representation may be on the rise, as there are about 10 candidates under age 20 currently running for state legislator.
Rep. Travis Bennett of New Hampshire is one of the youngest representatives in the United States at age 23. One reason he ran was to encourage other young people to get involved and vote. Millennials have policy interests that might differ from those of older generations, such as addressing the cost of tuition or implementing a modest income tax that would make it easier for younger people to afford an apartment, to get a new home or to start a family, said Bennett.
While New Hampshire might not be the most diverse in age, Bennett said that the state’s legislators do come from diverse careers and backgrounds, which enables them to compromise and negotiate more. However, he also noted that, “there are a lot of issues that affect young people that are not necessarily focused on so much as I would like them to be.”
Financial barriers also exist for millennials interested in serving in state legislatures where pay is minimal. For example, in New Hampshire the pay is $100 per year.
“It is tough to make the commitment unless you’re retired or have free time,” said Bennett. “Others who are younger than the average age of state legislators, those in their 40s or early 50s, still often struggle to maintain a job and be an effective legislator.”
Bennett does not plan to run again because he will finish college this year and will then proceed to find work and support himself financially. However, he said he would not trade his experience in the legislature and would encourage other millennials to pursue a position in their state governments. He said that his experience opened many doors for him and he encourages others to go beyond the classroom and be politically involved.
Blair said the main challenge for her is balancing school and her position in the West Virginia state legislature. Despite the challenges, she recommends the experience to anyone.
“It is important—for people at a young age especially—when we are talking about involvement because those are the people who are going to be in charge in just a few years,” said Blair. “It is important to be following the process at a young age, to be involved and to know what is going on.”
Blair also expressed the importance of accurate representation in government.
“At the end of the day, it is the job of anyone serving in any legislative position to represent their constituents,” she said. “Having a house that clearly represents your state or your country as a whole, one that is varied in occupations, gender, age, is the best thing we could ask for because you’re getting different insights, different viewpoints, and you’re going to more accurately represent your district.”