Hamilton Votes

Average age of Hamilton councillors is 60 — can they really represent young people?

As the average age of Hamilton city council creeps closer to senior discounts and pension cheques, some people are worrying that the people running this city are out of touch with issues affecting younger voters.
The average age of incumbents on Hamilton city council is 60-years-old. (Samantha Craggs/ CBC)

As the average age of Hamilton city council creeps closer to senior discounts and pension cheques, some people are worrying that local government is out of touch with issues affecting young adults and youth.

With two of the city's youngest current councillors — Ward 3's Matthew Green, 37, and Ward 1's Aidan Johnson, 38 — not running in October's election, the average age of the remaining incumbents is 60-years-old.

Ward 5 Coun. Chad Collins (who was first elected while in his 20s) clocks in as the youngest at 47, and Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr is two months out from his 50th birthday. Everyone else is in their 50s, 60s or 70s. 

Compared to cities like Toronto and Ottawa (where being a councillor is similarly a full time job) Hamilton city council does skew on the older side, McMaster University political science professor Peter Graefe told CBC News.

"We probably have a council that's not that attuned to the situation of young professionals, young parents, and that kind of demographic," he said.

I think there's a certain frustration that's seen among a younger demographic that councillors actually aren't speaking to what it is to be younger in this city.- Peter Graefe, political science professor

"Obviously there can be older councillors who have a real ear for youth, but generally, if certain groups aren't at the council table, their ways of thinking are less present in the discussion."

Younger candidates do appear as options on ballots this year, with candidates in their 20s, 30s and 40s running. But with the name recognition that comes with incumbency, they will be in tough to topple some of the city's more established municipal politicians. 

Some councillors and residents alike point to recent initiatives like the city's youth strategy that have benefited younger Hamiltonians, but the question still remains — can a city council with an average age approaching retirement really understand the issues facing students and young families?

Understanding millennial issues

Harrison White doesn't think so. At just 22-years-old, he is by far one of the youngest candidates running in this year's election. He's gunning for the vacant seat in Ward 1.

"I don't think [council] really has a pulse on millennials," White said, pointing to the fact that millenials are now the largest generation group in Hamilton, eclipsing baby boomers — a cohort that is much more represented in council chambers.

Recent university of Guelph graduate Harrison White is running for council in Ward 1. (Harrison White/Facebook)

Council has not focused heavily enough on issues of climate change, affordable housing, cycling infrastructure, and developing the downtown core, White said. Those issues were debated regularly at city hall over the last few years, but White maintains younger voices would change the scope of the discussion.

"A lot of people are ready for change," he said. "Youth care. Millennials do care."

Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson is Hamilton's longest serving councillor, having been first elected in the late 80s. He told CBC News that the question of whether or not council would benefit from younger voices is a "moot point."

Tom Jackson is Hamilton's longest serving city councillor. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Jackson said he doesn't believe that certain voices are being shut out of council because of any age disparity.

"That for me has never been an issue," he said. "I know my door is open to anyone who is searching for my services or my help in any way."

Finding leaders who are willing to listen

Stephanie Bertolo, the McMaster Students Union vice president of education, told CBC News that the issue here is less about age representation, and more about councillors being willing to listen and "engage in youth causes."

"It's whether or not they want to sit down with youth and listen to our concerns and vision for the future of Hamilton," she said, adding that councillors like Johnson and Green, as well as Mayor Fred Eisenberger, have been particularly willing to do this.

Though city council currently skews older, there is a precedent for young people to find political success in Hamilton.

In 1972, 20-year-old Sean O'Sullivan became what was then the youngest-ever Member of Parliament. He was a Progressive Conservative, and served until 1977, when he left for the priesthood.

Stephanie Bertolo is the McMaster Students Union's vice president of education. (Haley Greene/Facebook)

Hamilton's longest serving mayor, the late Bob Morrow, got a young start too. He ran for council and won at 22, but didn't own any property at the time, which was a requirement.

His father had transferred some property to him so he could be a candidate but the lawyer didn't register it in time, Morrow said. Morrow's dad ran and won the seat in the meantime, and two years later, Morrow won the election again and became a councillor.

Graefe said that for this election, he has noticed an increased presence from candidates in the 35 to 45 age bracket, which could change council's makeup depending on how votes are cast on Oct. 22.

"I think there's a certain frustration that's seen among a younger demographic that councillors actually aren't speaking to what it is to be younger in this city," Graefe said.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from Samantha Craggs