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Opinion: Millennials, Gen Z care about the national debt

Gordon Gray

Lazy clichés abound regarding the character of younger Americans. Google “millennial” or “Gen Z,” and the results suggest these generations of Americans are single-handedly “ruining” cherished traditions with avocado toast in one hand and an iPhone in the other. Surely the last thing on these Americans’ minds is something as serious as the national debt, so distracted they must be with TikTok and other vapidities.

Policymakers indulge this kind of thinking at their own political peril.

Rather than starting with a flawed assumption that younger Americans are ignorant to the federal debt’s threat, policymakers and observers need to grapple with the challenge that younger Americans are informed and engaged — they just prioritize other issues over the national debt.

The Brookings Institution recently convened an event featuring experts and policymakers examining how and why millennials think differently about climate change and the national debt. Among the more striking findings in the research presented by the Pew Foundation was the similarity across age groups in recognizing that the debt will likely grow over the next 30 years. Over 50% of millennials agreed that the deficit is a “very big problem today.”

Despite the lazy cliché, this group is no less informed and aware of the nation’s debt challenge than other age cohorts. 

"Debt levels are at their highest since World War II, but U.S. Treasurys are viewed as riskless — they are essentially as good as cash," Gray writes.

That this group of voters is relatively informed and engaged is cause for optimism. Concern for the national debt need not be the leading national priority to still have political salience. The cause for pessimism, however, is that millennials will be just as apathetic to the political challenge of taming the rising debt as their predecessors.

The biggest challenge in getting anyone, including millennials, to care about the national debt is that it is largely an abstraction. Debt in and of itself isn’t harmful, it's just one side of a transaction.

The danger, of course, is when debt gets “too high” — yet the “too high” part is where some of the trouble is. No credible budget analyst can tell you when the United States will run out of credit. Debt levels are at their highest since World War II, but U.S. Treasurys are viewed as riskless — they are essentially as good as cash.

That’s the first challenge — no one can tell you when the level of debt will actually matter.

Setting aside the science, this used to be the same challenge for climate change advocates. But storms and conspicuously aberrant weather and other natural phenomena have certainly raised the profile of climate change as a real and present danger. Meanwhile interest rates are at historic lows while the leading lights of the major political parties have largely flouted the norms of fiscal responsibility.

The trouble with this outlook is that once the debt becomes a conspicuous problem, it may be too late. Fiscal crises tend to occur quickly, with rapid and precipitous declines in credit markets’ confidence in the ability of governments to repay their bonds.

That a debt crisis is a future risk necessarily shifts that risk to younger Americans.

Younger voters do appear to have more faith in government to tackle problems. This group is likely not going to usher in a new era of lean, libertarian governance. Rather, there is some reason to have optimism that this group, with its distinct interests, could become a catalyst for substantive reform on this issue and defy the moribund political interests that have stymied debt reduction to date.

Gordon Gray is director of fiscal policy at the American Action Forum. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas From the Bush Institute.” It is being distributed by InsideSources.com.