Did the war between generations officially begin last Thursday night?

by Ryan Streeter on October 15, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Some of us have been writing for awhile about the coming generational conflict in America, as a more affluent senior class consumes resources paid for by a much poorer younger class. This is seen most clearly in our big entitlement programs, and it’s fueled by the fact that the senior lobby is much more powerful than any lobby representing younger people’s interests.

Despite our predictions that such a conflict will boil up and over at some point, it’s not at all clear that anything resembling generational conflict is underway in America.

However, maybe it started last week. Niall Ferguson writes today that last Thursday’s VP debate might have distilled the conflict clearly enough that the generational battle is now set to go off.

Pressed for a clear answer on what he and President Obama intend to do about the debt crisis, Biden responded with what the Irish call blarney. “The president and I,” he declared, “are not going to rest until … they [presumably the universal middle class to which everyone belongs] can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK.’”

What we saw last week was not just a contrast between Irish-American political styles. We saw the opening round in the clash of generations that will soon dominate American politics. If Laughing Uncle Joe—who turns 70 this year—has nothing better to offer than “It’s going to be OK,” then I suspect a surprisingly large number of younger voters will turn instead to young Father—and future veep—Paul Ryan.

That of course depends on enough younger Americans feeling the urgency about which Ferguson writes, namely an unsustainable debt load that will create a downward pressure on their incomes at the same time it exerts upward pressure on their taxes.

On this point, Just Facts has a useful guide on taxes, revenue, and government spending out today. As the authors note, today’s debt serves as a kind of tax on tomorrow’s generation. This is especially poignant today when you consider this: total government spending in America is at its highest point ever in U.S. history, and the mismatch between that level of spending and revenues is as great as it’s been since the anomalous days of WWII:

There are plenty people arguing that we really don’t need to worry about all of this, that the problem will fix itself, especially if growth resumes at even slightly higher levels. But that view relies on too many assumptions. The safest assumption is that debt will continue to pile up above revenues with or without tax increases, and that we need structural reforms to fix the mismatch.

Those reforms, though, won’t happen until the aspiring class – those people mainly 25 to 45 – get behind the ideas and elected officials who can make them happen.