News & Politics

New York City Council is getting younger – defying national trends

More candidates want to and are able to run competitive City Council elections.

New York City Council Member Chi Ossé, the youngest member ever elected to the City Council, is part of a trend of younger members getting elected.

New York City Council Member Chi Ossé, the youngest member ever elected to the City Council, is part of a trend of younger members getting elected. John McCarten/New York City Council Media Unit

Since 2010, the New York City Council has been getting younger.

With each new council, the number of members ages 30 through 44 has stayed the same or increased, while the number of members ages 45 through 69 has stayed the same or decreased. 

The current council also has the body’s youngest elected member, Chi Ossé, who took office when he was 23 and stepped in to represent Brooklyn’s 36th District from former Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., who took office at the age of 48. Cornegy’s predecessor was Al Vann, who joined the council at 67 after a quarter century in the Assembly. As older members leave the council, they are being replaced by younger and younger members.

“I​​t’s just good to get some dynamic new energy in there,” said Trip Yang, a New York City-based Democratic political strategist who has worked with council members for more than a decade. “It is even better to balance those dynamic new ideas with proven veteran leadership from people who understand city government and people who understand the levers to pull within city government to get things done.”

There were a number of things that could account for the age shift, according to Yang and various council members who spoke to City & State.

“Over the past 10 years, we’re seeing different types of people run – whether it’s AOC down to Ritchie Torres – we’re seeing this trickle-down effect stemming from national politics that’s letting folks believe that they can run for office,” Ossé, now 25, said in an interview. “Instead of waiting our turn, I find that a lot of young people are just jumping into the ring and trying to do what needs to be done themselves.”

Both City Council Member Gale Brewer, 71, and former Council Member Rafael Espinal, 39, pointed to the 2019 changes in the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s fundraising rules that allowed candidates to get an increased matching rate on small-dollar contributions from city residents and bumped up the amount of public funds could receive, among other things.

These changes have given lesser-known, grassroots candidates a boost and thus allowed a broader swath of people to run and, sometimes, get elected.

“For many of these people, the campaign finance funding is a godsend because you don’t have to raise as much and then you get support from the city,” Brewer said in an interview.

City Council Member Robert Holden, 71, saw a different reason. Elected officials often hire young people to staff their offices and campaigns. Once those officials move on from their roles, some staffers try their hand at running – in turn adding to the pool of young candidates. Having that experience in a politician’s office helps them get elected. Many council members started out as an aide or chief of staff.

Yet another possible influence on the age shift could be recent social justice movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, which have engaged young adults and teenagers in politics for their first time.

“With the rise of social media, with the election of President (Donald) Trump in 2016, with the campaign of Bernie Sanders, it really helped electrify the younger base to want to get involved in civic issues one way or another,” Espinal said. “I think because of all of those factors, there was this hunger from the younger generations, even from those that weren’t working for a council member or weren’t heavily involved in civic groups in their communities, just the general mainstream public wanted to get involved.”

When younger people run and win, it can change the way the members run their offices, the legislation the body produces, and the ways in which new and incumbent members interact.

“People just think about issues differently and talk a little bit differently, depending on where in life they are,” Yang said. “You have people who are a little bit younger, who are able to look at things a little bit outside the box. … But also there is no substitute for experience.”

Members in their 20s might be interested in social and environmental justice. Members in their 30s and 40s could be more likely to be raising young children, causing them to think about child care and education.

On the other hand, Holden suggested that the constituents miss out when they elect candidates who are too young, inexperienced and unaware of the history of the body and city.

“What I’m seeing from the younger council members is essentially not knowing the history of New York, and they’re making the same mistakes that we did in the ’70s and ’80s and so they come up with some of these bills that I know are counterproductive for New York City,” Holden said in an interview. “That, I think, is a problem.”

An example he gave was on crime. He said because the younger members didn’t grow up with the high crime rates of the ’80s, they don’t realize how bad crime can get in the city. As a result, public safety isn’t as big a priority for them as he thought it should be. Additionally, he pointed out that younger members don’t have as much experience with fiscal responsibility and balancing budgets as older members do – both personally and in government.

And with the City Council trending younger, it has bucked the national trends of members of Congress – and the candidates for president – being older than ever. The average age in the U.S. Senate is over 65 and nearly 58 in the House, according to FiveThirtyEight, which is older than any point in the past 100 years. President Joe Biden, now 80, and former President Donald Trump, now 77, were the oldest pair of major party candidates for president when they faced off in 2020.

At the end of the day, according to Yang, the mix of generations in the council is a good thing. The varying levels of political and life experiences balance each other out.

“It’s really, really healthy to have a variety of different age groups,” he said. “It’s really healthy to have our elected officials come from a variety of different age groups, because they’ll look at issues in a different way and, holistically, you’ll probably get better overall legislation over the long term.”

About the data

City & State collected the birthdays of all council members who’ve been in office since the start of the session in 2010. Online attendance records for council stated meetings were used to confirm the rosters from previous years. City & State couldn’t confirm the birth dates of four members from the 2010-2013 council and two members from the 2014-2017 council.

Despite those missing data points, there’s been a clear age shift within the City Council over the past 13 years, trending toward younger members.

The current council has 32 members who took office under the age of 45, compared to 25 members in 2014 and 20 members in 2010. Even within this age group, the numbers trend younger. The number of members who started at 30 to 34 years old has gone from seven in 2010 to 12 in 2022; the number of members who started at 35 to 39 years old has gone from five in 2010 to 14 in 2022 – even as incumbents grow older.

At the same time, the outliers, the number of members who started during their 20s, has actually decreased, while the number of members in their 70s has increased. There were three members who each were in their 20s when taking office in the three previous councils. In 2022, there was only Ossé. The current council had three members start this current session in their 70s – Brewer, Holden and Charles Barron – while there was only one in 2014 and two in 2010.

Overall, the average age of each of the four councils doesn’t show a steady decline in age because of the missing birthdays, though it does show some decline: 44 in 2022, 47 in 2018, 46 in 2014 and 45 in 2010. The median – the age right in the middle of the dataset – has bounced around but gotten younger overall: 38 in 2022, 48 in 2018, 44 in 2014 and 46 in 2010.