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The average age of Minnesota legislators is getting older — but that may be about to change

The legislature’s been on an aging trajectory since at least 1971.

The legislature’s been on an aging trajectory since at least 1971: whereas the average age in the House at the end of the Legislative Session that year was 45, it was 55 by the end of the 2017 session.

Minnesota’s legislators are getting older.

Yeah, yeah — we all are getting older, but in this case we’re not just talking about individual members of the Legislature. Rather, the average age of the Legislature as a whole has been going up.

Average age of Minnesota House and Senate members, 1971-present
Minnesota legislators in both chambers are older, on average, than at any point since at least 1971, according to data kept by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. Points show mean ages at the end of the Legislative Session in the indicated year.
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library

The legislature’s been on an aging trajectory since at least 1971: whereas the average age in the House at the end of the Legislative Session that year was 45, it was 55 by the end of the 2017 session. The average senator in 1971 was 47; today, 58.

That’s all according to data from librarians at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. (A caveat: the Legislative Reference Library has birthdays, and therefore ages, for most, but not all legislators.)

Older than average

While the average Minnesotan is 47, the average Minnesota legislator is 57, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures on the demographics of legislators in all 50 states that used data from 2015.

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It’s common for lawmakers to be older, on average, than the populations they represent, wrote John Mahoney, a policy associate at the NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening, in an email.

Across the U.S., the NCSL found that the average age of state lawmakers in 2015 was 56, compared to 47 for the U.S. population.

That would put the average lawmaker firmly in the baby boomer generation, which the NCSL defined as being born between 1946 and 1964. This generation is the most overrepresented in the Minnesota legislature, making up 64 percent of legislators compared to 30 percent of the state’s population. Millennials — born between 1981 and 1997 — were the most underrepresented, making up 30 percent of the population and just 4 percent of the legislature (a small share of millennials weren’t yet 21 at the time the data were collected, the minimum age to serve in the Minnesota legislature).

Minnesotans by generation in the legislature and state
On average, Minnesota legislators are older than the people they represent.
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Given the share of the population boomers represent in Minnesota, and the fact that legislators skew older than the populations they represent, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that so many legislators are baby boomers.

Boomers are a huge generation and they make up a big part of the legislature. We don’t have the data to compare them to their predecessors, but as the large contingent of boomers inevitably eases out of the statehouse in the coming decades, it’s possible we’ll see the average age of lawmakers decline.

“The average age of legislators has always tended to be higher than other professions, so we would not expect it to drastically drop just because many baby boomers are retiring,” Mahoney wrote. “However … the average age in  many states has generally been on the rise, and therefore it is likely that it will gradually fall — we are just not quite sure when and to what degree.”

Indeed, whereas the median age of Minnesotans has been on the rise: 37.1 years old in 2010 and 37.8 in 2016, it’s projected to go back down to 37 by 2020, according to Megan Dayton, senior projections demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

A cultural shift?

Younger members may make up a smaller share of Minnesota lawmakers, but in some ways, they seem to be driving much of the dialogue at the statehouse in the last couple years — whether on Sunday sales or sexual harassment — leaving some wondering if there’s a cultural shift underfoot.

In 2016, when the issue of Sunday liquor sales was before the legislature (it failed that year and passed the following), Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Savage, who is among the state’s youngest legislators at 24, did some math and found that legislators who served three or fewer terms were much more likely to support Sunday sales (of course, there are exceptions: Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who is 54 and was first elected to the House in 2008, authored Sunday sales bills).

Often, younger legislators and those who’ve served fewer terms are one in the same: According to the Legislative Reference Library data, the average member of the silent generation serving at the end of the 2016 legislature had been in their legislative body for 24 years. For baby boomers, 11 years; gen-xers, eight years and millenials, five years.

“I think too often in St. Paul, we get caught up in a that’s the way it’s always been kind of mentality, (that) I think younger legislators and legislators with less seniority are less likely to get caught up in,” Christensen said.

Researchers have found that members of different generations can have different philosophies and attitudes in the workplace. According to a report by the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota, baby boomers tend to value hard work and sacrifice, are reluctant to go against peers, value chain of command and expect authority. Gen Xers question authority, strive for work-life balance, are adaptable to change and prefer flexibility. Millennials are often confident, able to adapt to change, value flexibility and balance and can be demanding.

Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, in her early thirties and one of the first legislators to come forward to MinnPost about sexual harassment at the Capitol, describes feeling a sense of whiplash over the way women were treated when she arrived at the Legislature in 2017.

“I was in the workforce before I was elected … (but) when I went to the Legislature it was like oh, this stuff still happens. Stuff my mom would tell me about that happened when she was an executive with Wells Fargo. The stuff she would tell me about from the ’80s are things that happen at the Legislature.”

In light of the resignation of Sen. Dan Schoen and Rep. Tony Cornish following sexual harassment allegations that surfaced in the final months of 2017, the state is reviewing policies surrounding sexual harrassment.

When it comes to shifting culture, yes, but also for the sake of policy, Maye Quade says she hopes to see more fresh faces: she says it’s important for the concerns of younger Minnesotans to be heard.

“There are so many times we’ll be discussing a bill and I’ll have to look around and say, ‘what is your world?’” she said of her colleagues on the House floor. For example, when the Legislature was considering phasing out a program for first-time homebuyers, she recalled being taken aback by some members' interest in getting rid of a program important to many in her generation.

“Most people in the Legislature own homes, some of them own multiple homes,” she said. “I heard a legislator reference their library and their solarium in their house and I was like ‘I live in a 600-square-foot apartment.’”