The Link Between Age and Extremism

In the two years since a mob of rioters stormed the United States Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, nearly 1,000 people have been charged with federal crimes that range from misdemeanor trespassing to assault to seditious conspiracy. The Capitol defendants, who come from all parts of the country, are an eclectic mix of characters, including fringe conspiracy theorists, social media influencers, members of organized extremist groups, local politicians, and people who had never organized politically prior to Jan. 6. But despite the diversity in their backgrounds and levels of political engagement, the Capitol riot defendants are remarkably similar on one key, but often overlooked, trait: they are overwhelmingly older Americans.

The statistics on the Jan. 6 insurrection make it clear that the riot was not the result of a youth movement. The average Capitol defendant was nearly 42 years old on the day the riot occurred. Some of the most high-profile cases consist of individuals who should have been preparing for retirement rather than insurrection. For instance, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the anti-government Oath Keepers militia who was recently convicted of seditious conspiracy, was 55 years old on Jan. 6. The stiffest penalty handed down to a rioter thus far—10 years in federal prison for assaulting Capitol police—was given to a 56-year-old former officer of the New York Police Department. The oldest person prosecuted for participating in the events of Jan. 6 is an 81-year-old Army veteran from Pennsylvania.

What explains why some older individuals in the United States have gravitated toward violent extremism?

While the sheer size of the Capitol riot makes it an outlier as far as extremist crimes go, the fact that middle-age and older individuals participated in it does not. My team at the University of Maryland has collected data on more than 3,200 individuals who have committed extremist crimes in the United States since the 1950s, and we have found that the typical extremist offender is often older than people might assume.

According to our data, the average offender is nearly 35 years old when they commit their first politically motivated crime. The age of first offense is even higher for some ideological sub-groups, such as far-right anti-government extremists, who are typically in their 40s when they first offend. Moreover, the extremist activities of older offenders are not limited to non-violent crimes. Nearly 40% of violent extremist offenders in the United States are ages 35 or older. Even more concerning, one third of the successful mass casualty terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States since 1990, including the horrific assault on the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, were committed by offenders older than age 40.

The Age-crime Curve Doesn’t Pertain to Extremism

The radicalization of older individuals and their participation in events like the Capitol riot surprises many observers because it is generally assumed that political violence, like other forms of crime, is an activity predominated by young people. One of the most consistent and robust findings in the field of developmental criminology is the age-crime curve, which suggests that the risk of criminality is highest in adolescence and drops off significantly in early adulthood. While the causes of this effect are debated, some scholars argue that by going to college, entering the workforce, getting married, and having children, young adults form pro-social bonds to their communities that steer them away from crime and delinquency.

The correlation between youth and crime has been replicated across time, place and multiple offense types, making the prevalence of middle-age adults in the United States extremist offender population perplexing. What explains why some older individuals in the United States have gravitated toward violent extremism?

Studies that have investigated the relationship between age and political violence have almost exclusively focused on young people, but my team’s data suggest that the radicalization of older adults is likely tied to both ideational and material factors. The highest concentration of middle-age and older extremist offenders in the United States is in the groups and movements that comprise the extremist far-right.

‘Regardless of how they radicalize, research shows that extremist offenders are likely to encounter significant obstacles to disengaging from extremism.’

This milieu, which is made up of white supremacist and nativist groups, misogynists, anti-government militias, sovereign citizens, and Christian nationalists, recruits by weaponizing political discourse, casting common political debates as battles of good versus evil for the future of the country. These groups tend to craft extremist narratives around issues that have been consistently shown to resonate more with older Americans, such as immigration policy, public education, health and religion. In recent years, extremists and their mainstream supporters have been so successful in poisoning public debate with disinformation and conspiracy theories that Americans are increasingly basing their voting decisions on falsehoods. For example, a recent survey shows that an astonishing 25% of Republican voters, who tend to be older Americans, report believing in the QAnon conspiracy theory—the bizarre claim that former President, Donald Trump, and his military allies are secretly fighting a cabal of Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, and global elites who are engaged in Satan worshiping and child sex trafficking.

Of course, extremist narratives like QAnon do not simply disappear once votes have been cast. As we all witnessed on Jan. 6., those who are upset with the outcome of an election can use the disinformation spread by extremists as a justification to mobilize to violence. While the vast majority of people who care about issues like immigration and health policy will not radicalize or join violent groups, extremists know that if they insert enough vitriol into the political discourse, some will. And all it takes is a few dedicated adherents to have a remarkable impact on the public’s perceptions of their safety and the health of our democracy.

Table 1: Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States


Far-right offenders

Far-left offenders

Jihadist offenders

Age at Criminal Offense








Low Education (no college experience)








Criminal History




Substance Use Disorder




Evidence of Mental Illness




Perhaps more important than ideational causes, the radicalization of older offenders might reflect the fact that many of them experience the pro-social bonds associated with aging at significantly lower levels than non-extremists. The failure to achieve important life-course benchmarks, such as finding a romantic partner and establishing a career, can produce the grievances that fuel an individual’s radicalization. There is initial evidence to support this view, at least in the U.S. context. For instance, while the average U.S. offender associated with the extremist far-right is nearly 38 years old, only 36% of them are married, nearly half have no college experience, and almost 21% are unemployed.

Furthermore, older offenders associated with the extremist right have relatively high rates of criminal risk factors that can offset or prevent the achievement of positive life goals. Approximately 50% of far-right offenders in the United States have criminal histories that began before they radicalized; nearly a quarter have documented substance use disorders; and 20% have diagnosed mental illnesses.

Caught in a Vicious Cycle

Regardless of how they radicalize, research shows that extremist offenders are likely to encounter significant obstacles to disengaging from extremism, especially if they spend any amount of time in prison. The community stigma associated with being an extremist offender can limit future employment opportunities, which is especially concerning for individuals whose initial radicalization was tied to their inability to find steady or meaningful work. Even those who had established careers prior to radicalizing can experience the negative financial effects that often accompany a record of extremist crime. Many Jan. 6 defendants, for example, reported losing their jobs and having difficulties finding new ones because of their participation in the riot. The financial strain that can accompany disengagement might impact older offenders especially hard. Individuals confronted by the financial pressures of preparing for retirement, paying for their kids’ college educations, or caring for older parents can often least afford to experience financial downturns.

In addition to economic hardships, studies indicate that the increased anxiety and uncertainty that accompanies disengagement from extremism can trigger issues of substance abuse and related mental health concerns. Unfortunately, unlike its European counterparts, the United States has no national program to help people overcome these challenges and leave extremism, meaning the many individuals attempting to disengage do not have the support necessary to succeed. Studies have found that people who struggle during the disengagement process are more likely to re-engage in extremism at some point in the future or to reoffend by committing non-ideological crimes, which has already been the case for some Capitol rioters.

The events of Jan. 6 were part of a larger phenomenon of mass radicalization that has spread across the American populace, including to those who should be too busy with work and family obligations to consider engaging in political violence. This contagion has been fueled by the mainstreaming of views that were once the exclusive domain of fringe groups. No longer are radicalizing narratives limited to the dark corners of the internet that only young people visit. Rather, they can be found on cable news, talk radio and the mainstream social media sites that are frequented by the young and old alike.

Given that older Americans typically vote at much higher rates than young people, the spread of extremism to the mainstream means that there is a good chance that our electoral politics will continue to be dominated by disinformation, conspiracy theories and an unwillingness to compromise. It also means that we should expect that a small subset of older Americans will continue to radicalize to the point of committing acts of violence, sometimes with devastating consequences.

Far more attention needs to be paid to the relationship between age and extremism in the United States, especially when it comes to devising effective extremism-prevention programs. A safer America can only be achieved by stopping the spread of extremism across all age cohorts, and that will require us to shed the misguided belief that only young people are prone to violence.

Michael Jensen is a senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland in College Park, where he leads the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States project, which is a first-of-its-kind database on the radicalization characteristics of U.S. extremists.

Photo: lev radin

Photo caption: Rioters clash with police as they try to enter the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.