Rooting for the Millennials

Car makers are worried.

Today’s teens and twenty-somethings don’t seem all that interested in car ownership. Or driving more generally. Less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has also dropped. And adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, a far cry from the peak of 38 percent in 1985.

Jordan Weissmann in the Atlantic writes, “The billion-dollar question for automakers is whether this shift is truly permanent, the result of a baked-in attitude shift among Millennials that will last well into adulthood, or the product of an economy that’s been particularly brutal on the young.”

I’m guessing both and.

Wiessmann asks why purchase a new car given the five figure cost, insurance, repairs, and $4/gallon gas, especially if there are reasonable, nearby alternatives like a Zip Car membership, bicycle sharing program, or subway?

Also Millennials are more likely than past generations to live in cities, about 32 percent, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X’ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in cities. When they’re forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation.

“If the Millennials truly become the peripatetic generation,” Weissmann warns (emphasis added), “walking to the office, the bus stop, or the corner store, it could mean a longterm dent in car sales. It’s doubly problematic (emphasis added) if they choose to raise children in the city. Growing up in the ‘burbs was part of the reason driving was so central to Baby Boomers’ lives. Car keys meant freedom. To city dwellers, they mean struggling to find an empty parking spot.”

Josh Allan Dykstra in Fast Company asks, “What if it’s not an ‘age thing’ at all? What’s really causing this strange new behavior (or rather, lack of behavior)? He likes the thinking of a USA Today writer who blames (emphasis added) the change on the cloud, the heavenly home our entertainment goes to when current media models die. Dykstra writes, “As all forms of media make their journey into a digital, de-corporeal space, research shows that people are beginning to actually prefer this disconnected reality to owning a physical product.”

“Humanity,” he contends, “is experiencing an evolution in consciousness. We are starting to think differently about what it means to ‘own’ something. This is why a similar ambivalence towards ownership is emerging in all sorts of areas, from car-buying to music listening to entertainment consumption. Though technology facilitates this evolution and new generations champion it, the big push behind it all is that our thinking is changing.”

I like Wiessmann’s and Dykstra’s analyses and insights, but not their conclusions. They’re singleminded focus is on twentysomethings’ impact on economic growth as if everything valuable in life hinges on sales receipts. Ultimately, they’re coaching car makers on how to entice Millennials back into the market.

I’m more interested in cheering them on. For resolving to live differently than their parents, meaning within their means. For caring about the quality of the environment for future generations. For contributing to our country’s energy independence and making it less likely we’ll fight foreign wars. And for challenging the status quo of conspicuous consumption.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, an inspiring generation.

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