Stories

There's a generational gap for how much the national debt matters

What are America's biggest problems that a 2020 president should focus on solving? A new Harris Poll given exclusively to Axios asked 2,035 American adults that question, and 451 of them, or 22%, said that the national debt was one of the three most important issues.

Data: The Harris Poll; Poll conducted Feb. 21–25 among 2,035 adults; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: The older you are, the more likely you are to worry about the national debt. In fact, Americans over the age of 55 are more than twice as likely to cite the national debt as a top problem than Americans under the age of 39.

Context: Economists who worry about the national debt generally frame it as an issue of intergenerational equity. An individual borrowing money is essentially borrowing from her future self: future-you becomes a bit poorer so that present-you can be richer. On a national level, countries that borrow money are effectively borrowing from future generations.

  • Economically speaking, older Americans should be happier about the debt (it means the government is spending more money on them today), and younger Americans should be more worried about it (since they're the ones who are going to have to pay it back out of their future income). But that's not what we see in reality.

Why it matters: Younger Americans seem to be on board with the new economic consensus that the national debt is not a pressing issue. Their voice should be heard on this, since they're the ones who have the most skin in the game.