Boomer Senate Snubs Retirement A Decade Beyond Most Americans
- Of the current US senators, 54 are at least age 65
- The average senatorial retirement age is now 71
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The US Senate is built to skew grey — you can’t even get in before the age of 30 and it can take decades to get the role you really want.
By the time they leave, senators are a whole decade older than the average American retiree. Their average retirement age is 71, a Bloomberg Government analysis found.
Most choose to move on sooner than Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose lengthy absence after contracting shingles led the Judiciary Committee to delay advancing some of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees.
Feinstein is planning to leave office in January 2025 when she’s 91 years old. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who announced this week that he’ll retire, too, will be almost 78 when the winners of the 2024 election are sworn in.
With 54 senators already past age 65, more will be approaching the same career crossroads amid social media scrutiny that wasn’t part of life for previous Senate generations.
“You can’t hide impairment anymore,” Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University, said in an interview.
“If you’re not available through social media in a present way or to the media in general, which is a vastly larger constellation of people from all sorts of internet outlets and media outlets, then there’s immediate suspicion,” she said. “There’s literally no downtime in the public eye for senators anymore.”
Adding to the challenges are close political divisions — 51-49 now and 50-50 in the 117th Congress — and frequent party-line votes that draw attention to whoever’s absent.
“The margins of majority control are so tight now that every single senator matters every day,” Schiller said.
Who’s Above Average
In the 118th Congress, the average age of a senator is about 64 years.
Sixteen senators are over age 75. Five are older than 80, including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who hasn’t said if he plans to be on the ballot next year at age 83. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was re-elected last fall, is three months younger than Feinstein.
Compare that to Americans overall. Those surveyed by Gallup last year said they retired at age 61.
BGOV examined Senate departures over the past two decades and found that 71 is the average age of a senator retiring or resigning without seeking or accepting another political or government post.
The BGOV tally includes Carper, Feinstein, and two others retiring from public life at the end of the current 118th Congress: Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who would be 81; and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who would be 74.
It doesn’t include senators like Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who died in office at age 92 in 2010, or Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who’s running for governor in 2024. It also doesn’t include appointed senators who didn’t seek election.
‘One of Those’
Deciding when to step aside can be a vexing question as incumbents weigh health concerns; the ease of winning; the potential to make more money in the private sector; and the time, travel, and stamina needed for fund-raising and two years of campaigning.
“Grappling with an eight-year decision at age 64 is different than at age 53 or 42,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who’s 65, said when he decided to run for re-election.
“I have seen senators who stayed too long,” Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said on MSNBC last year, when he retired at age 82 after 48 years in the Senate. “I didn’t want to be one of those.”
Leahy was succeeded by 75-year-old Peter Welch (D), the oldest freshman ever elected by popular vote.
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And then there’s the flip side — ex-senators who brought down the chamber’s average retirement age by leaving while relatively young.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) retired in 2007 at 54 to honor a term-limits pledge.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) had served in the House or Senate for 32 years when he retired in 2005 at 60; he’s now a principal and director at the lobbying firm Crossroads Strategies along with Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who resigned from the Senate in 2007 at 66.
Retirement-Age Democrats Will Be Key to 2024 US Senate Control
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) quit the Senate in 2013 at 61 to lead the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think-tank. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) resigned in January at 50 to become president of the University of Florida.
In 2005, one-term Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) had just turned 58 when he said he wouldn’t seek re-election because he wouldn’t be his party’s strongest candidate.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) retired in 2019 after one Senate term at age 56, following clashes with then-president Donald Trump that left Flake vulnerable to defeat in a Republican primary.
The youngest Senate retiree in the past two decades was Peter Fitzgerald, an Illinois Republican who unseated Carol Moseley Braun (D) in 1998 but declined to seek a second term in 2004 at 44, citing the rigors of a re-election campaign in a strongly Democratic state.
Had he run, his Democratic opponent that year would have been Barack Obama.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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