“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.