An Alternative Hypothesis For Why Generation Y Isn’t Buying Cars

The Atlantic has had a couple of articles exploring why car buying has plummeted among Generation Y (21 – 34 year olds). I don’t disagree with the economic angles:

“A car is a symbol of freedom,” one consumer researcher told Bloomberg. “But unlike previous years, there are many different ways that a Gen Y person can capture that freedom.”

Young adults are in fact buying fewer cars and trucks today than in the past. According to CNW Marketing Research, Americans between the ages of 21 to 34 purchased just 27 percent of new cars in 2010, down from 38 percent in 1985. Bloomberg quotes the industry analysts at R.L. Polk & Co., who say that “the rate of U.S. auto sales to 18-34-year-old buyers declined to 11 percent in April 2012, down from 17 percent for the same age group in April 2007, before the recession.”

Is it really reasonable to blame that drop on Gen Y’s love of tech? No, not entirely. But it is fair to think that our preoccupation with smartphones and laptops might be contributing to the fall. Here’s why.

First, Gen Y is strapped for cash. Badly. Thanks to the recession and slow recovery, it’s been slammed with high rates of joblessness. Even college graduates, who have better prospects than most, are still collectively underemployed and staggering around beneath the weight of unprecedented student debt. In the scheme of a young person’s budget, a $12,000 Kia and a $2,000 Macbook Pro both count as major life purchase. Given the centrality of the web to everybody’s personal and professional lives, the computer (or heck, even a phone) may be the higher priority.

Second, young Americans aren’t simply turning their back on buying cars. They’re also turning their backs on driving. The percentage of teens and twenty-somethings with licenses has dropped dramatically over the past thirty years, which may be the sign that Gen Y’s indifference towards autos is a cultural shift as much as an economic one. Of course, we don’t know precisely why the young are driving less. Urbanites may embracing mass transit, biking, and car sharing services like Zipcar. Other young people may be gravitating towards walkable suburbs, where cars are often optional. But it’s not far fetched to think that the ability to connect with friends and family, shop, and entertain ourselves online has contributed to the trend.

But I think there’s another important factor: driving isn’t very fun anymore. Admittedly, urban areas and rush hours have never been enjoyable. But, I would argue that ~15-20 years ago, in the suburbs, there was a lot of nice, relatively traffic free driving to be had (again, not during rush hour and so on). When I lived in Connecticut, weekend mornings in the summer (not at the crack of dawn), I used to drive to the shore on the backroads en route to the beach. It was a nice drive. But now most places I drive–and rural areas are an exception–the driving is pretty miserable. Every time I wind up back in Long Island, the traffic seems to have become worse. The DC area has also become more congested for more hours every day*. It doesn’t help that road maintenance is in decline too.

So driving just becomes a way to get from point A to point B. If you live in a place where you don’t need to own a car to get to either work or basic necessities (e.g., a grocery store), a car becomes an expensive pain in the ass. Why waste your money, then, on a car?

*I very rarely drive around the Boston area, so I can’t really comment.

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9 Responses to An Alternative Hypothesis For Why Generation Y Isn’t Buying Cars

  1. geeka says:

    I concur. I’m right on the cusp of the GenX/Y divide. I don’t drive. In fact, this summer was the first year that I even tried to get a permit, and I’ve had a grand total of one lesson. The only reason why I was going to get a license was because of transit cuts. I don’t want the responsibility of owning a car, and because I walk so much, I’m afraid that I’ll gain weight.

    Driving has never seemed ‘fun’ to me. I do know that while it may take me longer to get home from work, during that time I’m decompressing and thanks to a smart phone, I’m likely doing something I’d do when I get home anyhow (reading/checking email/facebook/twitter). Sure, it takes me a little longer to get somewhere, but it’s not really down time. If I drive, I make back some time, but the driving time is unproductive.

  2. JG says:

    Another factor might be that Generation Y has got the message about climate change to a greater extent than their elders — unsurprisingly, since they’re the ones who’re going to have to try to live in the world we old farts have wrecked.

    It would be interesting to know how many of the younger people who do buy cars are opting for the high-mpg models.

  3. dr2chase says:

    “Symbol of freedom” means that someone’s been watching too many car commercials.

    Car payments is not freedom. Spending $40 at the gas station on a regular basis is not freedom. Spending hundreds of dollars for irregular repairs (warped rotor, noisy exhaust) is not freedom. Moving my car in and out of the driveway each day to comply with no overnight parking is not freedom. The requirement to license my car, register my car, insure my car, and license myself, and to always maintain all that paperwork when I use the car (“papers please”) is not freedom. The need to call for help after random minor mechanical failure, or a detour into a ditch, mudhole, or snowbank, is not freedom. Being stuck in traffic like a sheep in a herd is not freedom, either.

    I think it’s definitely the case that we’re relying heavily on overused aging investments (crowded, decaying roads) and imposing costs on the future (climate change, rapid resource consumption). It’s easier to ignore that when you’re already part of the problem.

    • Leo says:

      Car payments is not freedom. Spending $40 at the gas station on a regular basis is not freedom. Spending hundreds of dollars…

      Yes! This! I want to get rid of my car so badly, but being disabled and living in a city with poor public transportation means I still need it to get around. That or stop eating, I suppose.

  4. Vivien says:

    I used to be able to get around using only public transit and my own feet. It was wonderful and liberating, and I had considerably less anxiety about having a repair bill I might not be able to afford show up. I also didn’t pour hundreds of dollars a month into my gas tank.

    Now, twenty miles further from the city center, I work a half hour away in an office park with no nearby rental housing. I spend an hour every day driving, and have spent two grand on car repairs in the last 6 months. I’m shopping to replace my twelve year old vehicle, and discovering that even an inexpensive new car amounts to half my annual take home. This despite having a respectable white collar job which requires a college degree.

    Why would anyone do this if they had any alternative? I dream of ditching car ownership, and being able to walk or bike to work. It would be much better for my waistline, my wallet, and the planet. Unfortunately, stable jobs back in the city center which also pay enough for me to live there are in damn short supply.

  5. I think you’re largely right. 37 years ago, I was desperate to get my license because (a) I lived in the back end of nowhere, and biking 30 miles to get into town, on narrow roads that had a 2″ dropoff onto loose gravel (if that) was more exciting than I liked, and (b) driving was way fun!
    Both my kids (urban dwellers that they are) have never ridden a bike, are competent bus-riders and really, really, don’t want to get a driver’s license after growing up riding in the car with me going “JEsus CHRIST! Did you see that?!” every couple minutes. They drive reluctantly for practice with the white-knuckled intensity of 70-year-old snow bunnies taking their first run down the regular slopes. Every other car is a random-walking, existential threat. Every pedestrian is about to run out in front to try to commit suicide (and some actually do). A half-hour of that and I’m ready to go home, drink heavily and lie down. And they’re whimpering shells of wrecks of their former selves. I’m not surprised that so many kids don’t want a car. I’m only surprised that any of them do.

  6. Jim Thomerson says:

    My wife bought her first Ford Focus around 2002. The salesman told us the Focus was aimed at the young market, but was making a hit with retired folks like us.

  7. KeithB says:

    Could another factor be that schools are cutting back on driver education programs which increases the hassle-factor of getting a license.

    • dr2chase says:

      It’s all part of the same picture. Driving requires a lot of government support to make it economically interesting. Cut back on government support for education, government support for road repairs, and government support for yet more roads to carry the traffic, and it looks less attractive. Even the laws assigning fault in accidents were bent to support use of automobiles — “jaywalking” did not exist before there were cars ( ).

      I think there was also a bit of a frontier rush to get to the new (cheap) land that was made available by the automobile and all the roads that were built for it. Even if we built more roads to further-out cheap land, simple laws of geometry mean that the trips will be less attractive. When I was a kid my dad had a 14 mile, 15-minute low-stress commute; that same stretch of road now takes about an hour, despite doubling the width of the road, despite building overpasses, despite building two parallel multilane roads to divert some of the traffic. What used to be orange groves (cheap!) is now adult housing communities, or shoppes to cater to the needs of those adults.

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