08.28.20

Toolkit For Engaging Millennials With the National Debt Debate

Millennials and younger Americans differ sharply from older generations in the urgency they place on addressing climate change and the national debt. While the two issues are not equivalent, they are both major long-term concerns that need attention now. But while the younger generations are very worried about climate change and demand urgent action, they are far more relaxed about the escalating national debt. What lessons should stakeholders take from the successful public engagement of younger generations around action on climate change to encourage them to embrace the need for greater fiscal responsibility?

1. REFRAME THE MESSAGE

The economic and social realities of today demand that we change how we frame concern about national debt to create salience among younger generations.

Context matters in discussing a major issue with any segment of the population. That certainly applies to climate change and debt. Today the impact of climate change seems to be everywhere, and younger Americans have grown up with it – record-breaking temperatures, historic storms, melting glaciers. But for these same Americans, rising debt has had no apparent adverse effects. It is no longer the 1970s, when high interest rates and inflation were rampant. Older Americans well remember those times. True, the COVID-19 crisis has upended the economy for now, but the long period of rising debt before that was accompanied by unemployment at fifty-year lows, historically low interest rates and virtually no inflation. Moreover, staggering increases in debt now seems like a necessary – even painless – way to combat the economic crisis.

The way we talk about concerns associated with enormous national debt and unprecedented budget deficits must therefore evolve to match today’s perception of reality. Simply ratcheting up apocalyptic and fatalistic messaging around fiscal irresponsibility, born of a concern about future catastrophic debt crises, simply does not relate to anything experienced by younger Americans. Furthermore, younger Americans frequently face tremendous financial burdens in their personal lives that often preclude a faithful reckoning with the implications of our national debt. So, although the traditional framing of the need for fiscal responsibility may remain accurate, with its emphasis on the risk of ignoring growing deficits and debts, the focus on worst-case outcomes only increases younger people’s skepticism, cynicism and detachment. And to the extent that the message of economic risk gets through to younger Americans, it rarely stirs a desire for strong action any time soon.

Here is U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer describing the importance of personalizing our national debt concerns:

Surveys and research evidence suggest that to be successful, the debt message must be reframed and focused on actionable solutions now that will to future benefits and opportunities as a result of tackling the problem. In other words, focus on the benefits of action and not the calamities associated with inaction. If younger Americans are presented with the benefits and opportunities available to them from less debt-related pressure on future government and private investment, they will be more likely to demand action. Critically, this framing also addresses a root cause of Millennial and Gen Z ambivalence towards reducing the national debt: their personal financial burdens and worries about the rising cost of education and healthcare do not seem to require tighter national fiscal policy.

The contrasting experience of climate change activists underscores the importance of this approach to messaging. That experience shows that advocates can get traction when talking about dire consequences – but only if those consequences seem evident every day. It is floods, wildfires and freak storms today that make dire predictions of the future seem plausible and that generates a passion for action now. That’s not the case with debt and deficits – we just don’t see the debt equivalent of wildfires. And that is why we need a positive, future-oriented message.


By:  Stuart M. Butler, Timothy Higashi, Layla Zaidane, and Joe Greaney
Source: Brookings