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Gen Z Looks to Bring Its Impatience to Congress

If 80 is the new 50 in politics, then Maxwell Frost is basically in utero. Frost, 25, is poised to become the first (and only) Gen Z member of Congress — and he is hungry for change.

Frost, who won the primary last month in Florida’s safely Democratic 10th District in Orlando, represents a cultural and generational shift. An Afro-Cuban, he has been driving an Uber to help pay his bills during his campaign. Unlike the majority of lawmakers, he wasn’t shaped by World War II, Vietnam or 9/11.

His defining issue, as he describes it to me, seems to be anxiety: about the economy (he says he remembers watching Occupy Wall Street protests during elementary school, and talks about student debt); about racism and violence (he cites the shooting of 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin as a formative event, and says his school had more active-shooter drills than fire drills); and about the climate.

“There’s almost no light at the end of the tunnel,” he tells me over Zoom. “Our generation and young people have just collective righteous anger and frustrations,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of time to fix these problems.”

What would he do differently? He tells me he would have responded with “political hell rain fire” to 75-year-old Senator Joe Manchin’s torpedoing of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill last year. It’s a lesson Democrats can learn from the MAGA movement, he says. “They’re fascists, but one thing they’re doing that we should look at is they’re being very aggressive about whipping people into shape and getting people to really align, and if they don’t, that hell rain fire comes down.”

Regardless of what you think of that strategy, at least Frost would bring a refreshingly youthful perspective to Congress, which is evolving too slowly when it comes to diversity of age — especially in its leadership. A CBS News poll shows that many Americans believe having more young people in elected office would make politics better.

America’s elected branches of government have yet to get the memo. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) may represent 31% of the electorate, but there are 33 millennials in the House, making up only 8% of the body. The youngest serving Republican representative is 27-year old Madison Cawthorne of North Carolina, followed by 32-year-old New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Things are even grayer in the Senate, which has one millennial, 35-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff of Georgia, 20 Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and a whopping 80 members who are either baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) or members of the Silent Generation (born before 1965). Eleven senators were born before the end of World War II.

The poll also found that Democrats and Republicans are united in favoring maximum age limits for elected officials, with 70 as the top answer. That would disqualify not only the president (79 years old) and the speaker of the House (82), but most of the leadership of both parties, as well as about a third of the Senate.

For his part, Frost is against age caps and thinks it’s important for septuagenarians and even octogenarians to be represented in Congress. But his generation “barely makes up any government at any level anywhere,” he says.

Frost may benefit from a generational shift in voting behavior, says John Della Volpe, polling director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.” Gen Z will vote for members of Congress “even if the candidates offered are not perfect,” he says. “That’s a distinction that separates them from previous generations.”

Their influence will come into sharper focus this November. The Harvard Youth Poll last spring found that turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds for the 2022 midterms was on track to match the record set in 2018. At the time of the survey, the composition of that group was more favorable to Republicans, Della Volpe says.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has created something “more powerful” than in 2018, he says. There is “the shock of a couple of generations of rights being peeled away overnight,” combined with “youth friendly and future friendly” executive actions and legislative accomplishments on guns, climate and student debt relief.

“For young people to participate,” Della Volpe says, “they need to see their vote matters.” Soon enough, they may also see that their generation is represented. In the meantime, Frost may bring down the average age of Congress by a few years.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• A Very Old Senate Could Get a Tiny Bit Younger: Jonathan Bernstein

• Democratic Candidates Shouldn’t All Be Fresh Faces: Albert Hunt

• AOC’s Old-Fashioned Machine Politics: Francis Wilkinson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was formerly a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

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