Why does this ubiquitous line fail to spur Americans to demand fiscal reform? In part because it is poorly suited to those who most need convincing: younger Americans. This group was essential to reelecting Barack Obama, who has overseen an expansion in publicly held federal debt greater than all his predecessors combined. Indeed, younger voters preferred Obama to Mitt Romney by a 23-point margin. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of national exit-polling data, younger voters also strongly prefer more expansive government: 59 percent of voters aged 18-29 said “government should do more to solve problems,” compared to 35 percent among the 65-and-older group. And while Pew has found that younger adults are more likely than older Americans to say that providing Social Security and Medicare benefits at current levels will place too great a financial burden on younger generations, even the 18-29 cohort still believes that preserving Social Security and Medicare is more important than reducing deficits, 48 to 41 percent.
Republicans have clearly got some explaining to do. But simply lamenting that a failure to curb spending today will unfairly burden our “children and grandchildren” isn’t likely to cut it. A great many of these younger voters don’t have children, and convincing them to forgo the benefits of government spending now for the sake of someone else’s kids is a hard sell. Some may, for the moment, want to preserve generous Medicare and Social Security benefits for the sake of their own aging parents and grandparents. And many of them may not even want children of their own: Demographic trends suggest that today’s younger Americans are relatively unconcerned about producing children and grandchildren, let alone their fiscal situation. The young women who supported Obama because he forced employers to fund their preferred methods for not having children seem particularly unlikely to be persuaded by calls for generational forward-thinking.