The new Congress that convened this week is the oldest in history, with the average Representative's age rising to a record 57. That's three decades older than Aaron Schock, the youngest member of Congress and the first to be born in the 1980s. The 27-year-old Illinois Republican is already a political veteran: he won a seat on Peoria's school board at 19, rose to school-board president at 23 and then won two terms in the Illinois state legislature. He spoke with TIME about his early success, reaching out to Gen Y voters and the odds of having any fun in Washington.
Most of your colleagues in Congress are old enough to be your parents. How do you see the job differently than they do?
It's a little lonely being the only one in my 20s here. But obviously, I do bring somewhat of a different perspective because I hope to be around as an American citizen for the next 50 years, Lord willing. The programs we're voting on and the policies we're implementing are things my generation will be paying for for the next 50 years. So I look at it in a different light than somebody who may be in their 60s or 70s.
Do you think of yourself as part of Generation Y? How would you describe people your age?
I hadn't until I became a candidate and I was informed that I'd be the first Gen Y Congressman, so I actually started a leadership PAC as a candidate that was titled GOP Generation Y Fund. So I've tried to play off that to my benefit and to the benefit of other young candidates who might be running in the future.
As far as this generation, I think we're a very involved and engaged demographic. I think you saw that in the last election.
That's true your generation was very active politically last year. But most supported Democrats. Is there something your party doesn't get about younger voters?
I think at times elected officials lose sight of the fact that the younger generation uses different means of communications. They don't necessarily pick up the New York Times to get their news. They may go online, and they may use more things like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube things that members of the older generation aren't as accustomed to using to communicate with constituents.
If President-elect Obama's campaign taught us anything, it was how to use new media to reach out to youth. If your source of information is your iPhone and your Facebook page, then hands down, Senator Obama did a much better job than Senator McCain. Job One is just reaching out and communicating.
You graduated from college in two years. You joined the Illinois legislature at 23. Why the hurry?
I'm a big believer that when opportunity presents itself, you've got to seize it. I've been very fortunate that the doors of opportunity have been opened, and I've walked through them. I've been very blessed that back home, the community has supported me I look back at photos of me when I was running for school board at 19 and I joke that I don't know if I would have voted for that kid.
It's humbling to know that several hundred thousand people cast their ballot to put a 27-year-old in the U.S. Congress. To have their faith in my ability to represent them and to do a good job for central Illinois means a lot. That weighs heavily on me, the responsibility to deliver for them.
There are lots of young people in Washington and plenty of opportunities to unwind. Is having fun on your agenda?
I asked my scheduler about that yesterday, and I didn't see it on there for the first six months [laughs]. The schedule that the Speaker has put out is pretty aggressive. The weekends that I have, quote, free, I'm planning to go back to central Illinois. Those are the folks who gave me the job, and I need to stay in touch with them.
But I'm a big believer in balance too. You can't be all work and no time for family and friends, so that's important to me as well.
Are you dating anyone, Congressman?
Not yet. Put out the word!
Now that you have a congressional staff, is it strange to be the boss of people older than you?
When I was a state legislator, my staff was all older than me. What I have found with my colleagues is, if you're respectful with one another and you have a level of professionalism, it's reciprocated. I figure when they apply to work for me, they know who they're applying to work for, so if they had a problem with the age thing, they probably would not have sought employment with me.
Members of Congress get special license plates and free postage, right? Any other cool perks of the office so far?
There are definitely perks, but I can tell you my constituents think there are more perks than there actually are. They wanted to know right away where my bodyguards were, and they were surprised that I haven't found a place to stay yet. They said, "You're kidding you have to pay for that?" Sometimes they think that the opulence is more than what it actually is. I put my pants on one leg at a time this morning and walked to the Capitol. But it's definitely a privilege to serve.
Your predecessor in the 18th District, Ray LaHood, has been nominated as President-elect Obama's Transportation Secretary. Abraham Lincoln once represented that district as well. What's down the road for you?
As far as where I want to go, I'm a big believer in staying on task and doing a good job in the position you've been given. And who knows what the future may hold.