The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats see a generational change in leadership — literally

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) greets Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) after speaking in the House chamber Thursday in Washington. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

You can’t really say that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) announcement on Thursday that she would not seek reelection to lead the Democratic Party’s chamber caucus came as a surprise. Pelosi has held the top leadership position for nearly two decades, and her party’s losses in last week’s midterm elections mean that she’d have been relegated to minority leader in the upcoming 118th Congress. As good a time to step back as any.

But there was an unavoidable subtext to it, too. Back in 2020, Joe Biden waved away questions about his age by suggesting that he would be a bridge to a new generation of leadership — something that many in his party were agitating for. Before the midterms, this argument became a way for Democrats in contested races to speak out against both Biden and Pelosi: It wasn’t that they didn’t like the top Democrats, really, just that they wanted “a new generation.”

With Pelosi’s announcement this week, that generational shift is in play. The Democrats likely to take over the top-two positions in the House caucus are literally from a different generation than Pelosi, 82, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), 83, who also announced that he wouldn’t seek to renew his position. The new generation is upon us.

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It’s not the case that generations are hard-and-fast things. People tend to defer to the Pew Research Center’s definitions, in part because Pew articulates clear boundaries. If we compare the ages of national leaders to those delineations, we can see how power trickles down through generations … slowly.

Here are the ages (and, therefore, generations) of the president, vice president and Senate president pro tempore over the past 40 years. In the 1980s, they were all members of Pew’s “greatest” generation — the generation before the generation before the baby boom. Over the past 10 years, they’ve all been boomers or members of the “silent generation.”

Vice President Harris is not the first boomer to hold that position; Dan Quayle was back in 1993. But she’s the youngest boomer ever to do so, though she’s now older than Quayle was then.

The position of Senate president pro tempore is largely ceremonial and usually goes to the most senior member of the majority party, which is often the oldest member of the party. Hence the gray lines sitting well above the lines for president and vice president.

Now let’s look at the shift in House leadership. Interestingly, the leadership of the Republican Party has been younger than the leadership of the Democratic Party in recent years, in part because the GOP’s leadership has been much more hotly contested in the post-tea-party era. (You’ll notice that the lines below are labeled as leader and whip/second-ranking member. That the senior official of the party in the majority usually becomes House speaker means that the “leader” position then goes to the person who would otherwise be whip. It’s all silly, but it is what it is.)

At far right, you can see the generational shift for the Democrats, should Pelosi be replaced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), 52, as many political observers expect, and should Hoyer be replaced by Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), who is 59. The party would go from two silent-generation leaders to a boomer and one in Gen X.

It’s important to recognize how this shift is particularly important for Democrats. Breaking down partisans by age using national registration data from L2, we see that 2 in 5 Democrats are members of the youngest-two generations, the millennials and Gen Z. Only a quarter of Republicans are. In other words, there’s more pressure for Democratic leaders to be younger and represent younger members of the party than for Republicans, about half of whom are boomers or older.

There has not yet been similar pressure on the Senate side. Senate leadership tends to be older since senators tend to be older, thanks to age requirements to serve in that chamber and because of the House-to-Senate election pipeline. So Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), 71, is a relatively young leader as a member of the baby boom generation — but also older than about 80 percent of Democrats.

Pelosi is older than 95 percent of Democrats, a function of her serving in her position as long as she has, with few complaints from her party’s base. But after rumblings for several years, she and the party seem to have recognized that the time for generational change had, in fact, finally come.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.