Age and political representation: A historical perspective

Guest article by Mark Farrelly, NUI Maynooth

Table 1: Average age of TDs at selected general elections, 1922-2007

Table 1: Average age of TDs at selected general elections, 1922-2007

Whilst much attention has been paid to the low numbers of female TDs in the Dáil, there has been no examination of the dearth of younger TDs. The average age of TDs has been getting progressively older since 1918. Taking a cross section of elections, held between 1918 and 2007, we can see (as in Table 1) that each Dáil has been older than the last, bar the case four elections.

The average age grew from 37.9 in 1918 to 50.6 in 1957. In the 1969 the average dropped by almost 4 years to 46.6. It rose to 48.8 in 1973, before falling again to 45.5 in 1981 and to 45 in the February 1982 election. The average age of TDs has again been consistently growing from 1982 to the most recent general election (2007).

One of the most common complaints from the public during the economic and political crisis of the past few years has been that our politicians are too old and too out of touch with modern society. The average age of the 30th Dáil on the day of its first sitting – formed after 2007 election – was 50.4. The average age of a Fianna Fail TD was 50.3 years, the average age of a Fine Gael TD was 48.7 years, while Labour TDs were, at an average of 54.5 years, the older by far of the three main parties in the 30th Dail.

If we look back to 1918 and the election of the 1st Dáil, the average age of a TD was 37.9. This means that a TD elected in 2007 was on average almost 13 years older than a TD elected in 1918.

Table 2: Average ages of TDs in three main parties after selected general elections, 1922-2007

Table 2: Average ages of TDs in three main parties after selected general elections, 1922-2007

Table 2 shows the trend in ages of the three main parties, (Fianna Fail, Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael, and Labour). In the early days of the state the Pro-Treaty government of 1922 was younger than the opposing Anty-Treatyites. However the average age of a TD elected for Fianna Fail in that party’s first general election in June 1927 was 39.6; this was younger than the average age for Labour TDs (42.5) and much younger than the average age for Cumann na nGaedheal TDs (46.2).

In more recent times a trend has become clearly visible in that the average age of a Fine Gael TD has been younger than that of a Fianna Fail TD in every Dáil bar one (1992). Another trend we can see is that Labour have been the oldest party of the three main parties in each Dáil since 1981.

So what does this tell us about election 2011? In truth there are more questions than answers. Will the average age of a TD drop significantly as it did after the last time the average had been over 50 (1957)? Will the large number of retirements amongst outgoign members of the 30th Dail have an impact? Will Labour continue to be the oldest of the three main parties? Will the obvious enormity of this election have an effect on the age demographic of the next Dáil?

Whatever the result in terms of government formation, it is safe to say that if there is not significant drop in the average age of the next Dáil following the results of the upcoming election, then there may never be one!

The data used in this analysis was drawn from the excellent electionsireland.org website. The average ages of each Dáil are a closest possible estimate, as the ages of some TDs were not available, particularly in earlier elections. Due to time constraints only a select number of Dáils have been analysed. However I hope to complete an analysis of each Dáil since 1918 in due course.

Mark Farrelly (MARK.FARRELLY@nuim.ie) is a student on the Masters in Society and Space programme in NUI Maynooth and he is currently carrying out research on youth electoral participation and representation levels in the Republic of Ireland.

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12 thoughts on “Age and political representation: A historical perspective

  1. Male, pale and, now, stale? The characteristics match what they do – and what they are allowed to do – in the Dail. You don’t need youth, vibrancy, intelligence or gender diversity to perform lobby fodder duties.

  2. The implication of your article is that this is a problem; I don’t think that it is. While there is an argument to suggest that some younger people (say 21-35) should be in the Dail simply to give a greater infusion of the views of their cohort, I’m not even sure this is true. The kind of people that run for the Dail tend to be outliers (and this is not necessarily a bad thing) insofar as “youth culture” is concerned.

    More importantly, the general problem with a parliament decreasing in age is as follows: you may end up with a situation, as in the UK, where far too many of the cabinet (and indeed the Prime Minister) have little or no life experience, particularly outside of parliament. The model that is beginning to dominate there is one where a university leaver goes straight into a private secretary or special advisory role before being found a safe seat in their late twenties/early thirties. They then jump straight into the cabinet. This is far too quick. Much more needs to be done, as many people are saying, to bring experienced business men, academics, doctors and so on into public life. Those retiring at 65 are a particularly underused resource and should be encouraged to give back to the politics of the country once their working lives have finished.

    The far greater problem then, from my point of view, is the lack of wise and experienced men and women in their sixties and seventies and, dare I say it, eighties within the Dail. Some of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers (Disraeli, Palmerston and Gladstone for three of his terms) didn’t reach the summit of the political ladder until well past their sixtieth birthdays. We seem to have lost the idea which dominated in previous millennia that there is a connection between age and wisdom. For those who think that the older generation in Ireland is the source of our economic problems and needs to be replaced, remember that it was people in their forties and fifties that did the damage. We could have used some calmer and more conservative thinkers.

  3. Wasn’t implying that at all Michael. But in saying that there is an argument that poor youth representation is a bad thing. Hence this article is simply trying to start the debate.

    For instance the fact there are very young people in office could be a reason for poor young voter turnout. The implications of this is that young people are left without a voice. Whilst a younger politician may be no more equipped to their job than an older one, their presence could encourage younger people to vote and to have a greater engagement with politics. This however is just a theory I hope to find out more about.

  4. Wasn’t implying that at all Michael. But in saying that there is an argument that poor youth representation is a bad thing. Hence this article is simply trying to start the debate.

    For instance the fact there are very young people in office could be a reason for poor young voter turnout. The implications of this is that young people are left without a voice. Whilst a younger politician may be no more equipped to their job than an older one, their presence could encourage younger people to vote and to have a greater engagement with politics. This however is just a theory I hope to find out more about.

  5. I sense that many young people have the savvy to see through the BS, hypocrisy and posturing. They might not have analysed the system of political governance clinically or scientifically, but they just sense it’s a lot of stuff and nonsense. We’ve all seen the T-shirts with “If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it”.

    These things go in cycles. We’re coming up to 100 years of universal suffrage in most developed economies. The Allies had to fight long and hard to restore democratic governance, but we have had more than 60 years of it in western Europe and people begin to take it forgranted. The trend towards increased executive dominance in many countries – and the extent to which these governments have been in hock to vested interests – has played a part. As has increased EU governance – often devised and implemented over the heads of voters.

    But it will come round again. The desire to participate in democratic governance is never suppressed for too long. Witness events in North Africa and the Mid East.

  6. It would be interesting to correlate average ages of TDs with the average age of the population over time – especially now with increasing life expectancy and the likelihood of later retirement ages. Another interesting correlation would be the occupational backgrounds of TDs – have the teaching, legal and auctioneering professions really been as dominant as generally supposed, and what have been the changing trends over time?

    • This is a good point. If you measured age in relation to life expectancy, you’d probably find the Dail had got relatively younger, in the sense that incoming TDs could expect more years ahead of them. Mind you, given the life styles of many of the Labour TDs over the years, this might not have been true in their case. Do TDs live longer than most of us?

  7. Curious about how significant the data is considering the type of people that made up the Dáil at the beginning and increasing life expectancy over time. How do the national parliaments in other countries compare?

  8. Has anyone got data on the age profiles of Labour’s candidates in the election? Is the Dublin South Central candidate selection just a once off or indicative of their overall age profile?

  9. Perhaps it’s a little early, but I’m surprised that there is no post today celebrating our democracy. The day of a general election is the most important day in the life of any state when the people affirm their ultimate authority to decide by whom and how they should be governed. All should celebrate it by affirming and exercising that ultimate authority – and responsibility.

    And we should also remember those who are being butchered in their hundreds as they seek to overthrow tyranny (cosseted, to their shame, by many developed democracies) and to affirm and to exercise their authority to decide how and by whom they are governed.

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