National Debt and the Next Generation | Peter G. Peterson Foundation

National Debt and the Next Generation

A secure fiscal foundation creates economic opportunity and prosperity for the next generation.

The Next Generation Will Know Debt Like No Other.

They are burdened by record student debt. They are entering the workforce during a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty, in a nation with crumbling infrastructure, a climate in crisis, and rising inequality.

On top of all this, they will inherit a costly legacy in the form of America’s national debt. Today it already stands at $31 trillion. But it will rise rapidly in the coming years, growing to $52 trillion by 2033.

Young Americans are set to inherit a budget and economy that leaves them worse off than their parents and less prepared to respond to future crises — the opposite of the American dream. Just as climate change and inequality pose significant challenges to our future, so too does our unsustainable fiscal outlook, which threatens not only our economy, but key safety net programs which are so critical to vulnerable Americans.

The next generation should be able to define their own path, control their own destiny, and choose their own policies, without the burden of paying the ongoing bill for our own needs from the past. A just and moral America is founded on the principle that we leave the next generation better off — with the financial freedom to decide how to direct their own future resources in the most effective, equitable, and prosperous way.

It is what we do now — today — that will set the next generation up for success tomorrow. The good news is that our unsustainable fiscal path can be solved.

Key Economic Issues For the Next Generation

The next generation has the most to gain, and the most at stake, in how we build our fiscal and economic path. Sustainable fiscal policy is critical to America’s ongoing ability to address the many key issues that today’s youth will face over their lifetimes.

Jobs and Economic Opportunity

Growing levels of youth unemployment, along with the long-term trend of sluggish wage growth, threaten the economic opportunities available to future generations. Saddling future workers with an unsustainable national debt will further limit their ability to overcome those trends, with downward pressure on wages and productivity. To put it simply, the more debt we carry, the less resources we have available to invest in our future.


The United States has the most expensive healthcare system in the developed world, without delivering better health outcomes. Rising costs all too often can have a devastating impact on individual or family finances. Moreover, our broken, inefficient healthcare system poses a threat to our nation’s economy and fiscal outlook for generations to come. To unlock the full potential of our citizens, our economy, and our nation, we need to address healthcare costs and ensure that our system provides better quality at a lower cost.

Economic Inequality

Wealth and income inequality have risen sharply over the past few decades. The many potential solutions to addressing the needs of our most vulnerable populations all involve resources and funding for policies and programs. Addressing our fiscal challenges and putting our debt on a sustainable path would allow our government to better plan, prepare, and create a more equitable and inclusive economy.

Safety Net Programs

Critical programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP and Unemployment Compensation are essential lifelines for our most vulnerable populations. However, America’s fiscal situation jeopardizes those programs, and absent reform, trust funds for Social Security and Medicare may face depletion while our unsustainable fiscal path may crowd out funding for the other safety net programs. We simply can’t let today’s irresponsibility and lack of planning threaten those vital programs for future generations.

Climate Change

To meet the critical challenge posed by climate change, we need resources, not only today, but tomorrow as well. As the frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters increases, maintaining a sustainable fiscal outlook will give us the financial strength to invest in ways to slow climate change, reverse its effects, and protect our economy and citizens.

National Security

The United States faces a complex and changing set of national security threats from around the world. There’s a fundamental link between our nation’s fiscal strength and our ability to meet these challenges and defend the nation’s interests. Stabilizing our national debt, which will allow us to maintain our level of preparedness and superior military strength, is essential for maintaining our leadership role in the world.

Student Debt

The rise in student debt has implications for young people and the federal budget. Studies show that excessive student debt can lead to a range of negative economic effects for individuals, including preventing young families from purchasing homes and restraining the growth of small businesses. And because 92 percent of student debt is issued by the federal government, the exposure to the federal budget increases as the amount of student debt climbs. Responsible borrowing on all fronts will help advance economic opportunities and prosperity for the next generation.

Peterson Foundation Programs

The Peterson Foundation is committed to engaging young Americans in a critical conversation about the rising national debt and ways to manage it. We have developed a range of programs to empower and inspire the next generation to help build a resilient and inclusive fiscal future.

Up to Us

Making an Impact by Creating Future Fiscal Experts

Up to Us is the only nationwide, campus-based program focused on building a sustainable economic and fiscal future for America's next generation. Representing various views and backgrounds, the nonpartisan Up to Us program is fueled by the next generation of leaders who recognize how the nation's fiscal condition shapes their future opportunities. Through creative campaigns at colleges and universities across the country, emerging leaders power the Up to Us movement by educating and engaging their peers on the risks presented by America's overwhelming debt. A partnership of the Peterson Foundation, Net Impact, and the Clinton Global Initiative University, Up to Us has reached more than 350,000 students on over 600 campuses in all 50 states since its launch in 2012.

Join the Up to Us Movement

Student Debt Smarter

Helping Young People Make More Informed Decisions About Their College Journey

Student Debt Smarter is a free online resource designed to empower college-bound students with practical information and personalized insights about the financial impacts of their higher education choices. The Student Debt Affordability Calculator allows prospective college students to explore how their major, college, year of enrollment, and post-graduation location can affect the affordability of their student loans. The site also includes independent, expert resources to help students navigate the complex process of applying for financial aid, scholarships, and grants, as well as nonpartisan resources for understanding America’s student debt crisis and economic landscape.

Use the Student Debt Affordability Calculator

The Fiscal Challenge

Engaging Students in Fiscal Policymaking

The Fiscal Challenge brings the classroom to the Capitol through an annual competition that utilizes experiential learning to enhance students’ understanding of fiscal policy. The competition mobilizes teams of students from around the country to devise and defend their own plans for putting the United States on a sustainable fiscal path. The competition has engaged over 40 colleges and high schools nationally and internationally since it was founded in 2013.

Enter the Fiscal Challenge

The PGPF Fiscal Internship Program

Providing Hands-On Experience to America’s Future Fiscal Leaders

The PGPF Fiscal Internship Program offers full-time paid internships at a range of public policy institutions to college and graduate school students interested in fiscal policy. Interns live and work in Washington, D.C., for 10 weeks during the summer, while gaining professional experience, skills and contacts that will serve them throughout their careers.

Apply for the Fiscal Internship

For Educators

Through a dynamic curriculum and interactive gamification, the Foundation is working to engage students and cultivate an understanding of the importance of sound fiscal policy.

Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

Developing Fiscal–Minded Citizens Through Education

Aimed at teaching students how to think critically about public policy, Understanding Fiscal Responsibility lessons teach young people the fiscal basics with a focus on government institutions, public policies, and economic events. Through those lessons, developed in partnership with Columbia University and the Council for Economic Education, students become informed fiscal citizens as they consider the tradeoffs involved in setting public policy. They learn to articulate their own views by evaluating primary and secondary sources, engaging in group activities and discussions, and writing brief essays. Lessons can be downloaded for free using the link below.

Get the Curriculum

Fiscal Ship

Gamifying the Future of Our National Debt

The Fiscal Ship is an interactive online game where the player’s mission is to reduce the national debt from projected levels over the next 25 years by making the challenging tax and spending choices our political leaders face every day. Winning requires a combination of policies that match personal values and priorities, and that set the federal budget on a sustainable course. This game was produced by the Hutchins Center at Brookings Institution and the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center, with support from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Play the Fiscal Ship

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that is dedicated to increasing public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America's future, and to accelerating action on them. To address these challenges successfully, we work to bring Americans together to find and implement sensible, long-term solutions that transcend age, party lines and ideological divides in order to achieve real results.

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