By Martha C. White
December 11, 2014

Consumer confidence may be up, but the picture changes when Americans think about their debt load and the likelihood they’ll ever dig out from it.

In a new CreditCards.com survey, 18% of Americans with debt say they won’t eliminate those debts in their lifetime, double the number who said the same in a 2013 survey.

There are a few reasons behind this rapid increase, says the site’s senior analyst, Matt Schulz. Our ballooning student loan debt and increasing willingness to carry balances on credit cards play a role, but they’re not the only factors.

“Underemployment is still a problem as is wage growth, even though unemployment is lower,” he says. This malaise stretches across the economic spectrum. The survey found that higher incomes don’t translate to optimism. Households who earn more than $75,000 aren’t much more confident about their ability to shed their debt than less well-off families.

The average age when borrowers expect to be completely debt-free, owing nothing on credit cards, car loans, student loans, mortgages and loans, is 53, but a significant number of people think it will take longer. More than 40% of people who carry debt think they’ll be over the age of 60 before they pay everything off, and almost a third of debtors 65 and older say they’ll never get out of debt.

If these debtors are correct in their hunch, there could be some significant macroeconomic fallout, Schulz says.

“Continuous debt can mean indefinitely postponing retirement and that can cause a host of issues,” he says. “It can also cause great economic stress on those people’s children.” This “sandwich generation” are often caught in the middle trying to support both their grown children and their parents.

Those grown children — millennials — are considerably more optimistic than their parents and grandparents when it comes to their debts, but their optimism may be misplaced. Only 6% of millennials surveyed think they’ll die with debts, but the reality could give them a rude shock. Unlike even their struggling grandparents, young adults have fewer options for getting rid of their debt other than buckling down and paying it down, since much more of what they owe is in the form of student loans, which can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, rather than the credit card debt or even mortgages that weighed down older generations.

“Someone who sees themselves as trapped forever by debt might stop working to get themselves out of it,” Schulz says, and that inaction brought on by hopelessness could contribute to their balances ballooning if they stop trying to pay them down.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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