Millennials and the Car

Millennials. We’ve been everywhere in the news lately. From stories in Time that wildly assert that our unchecked narcissism is threatening the integrity of American society to feature spreads in Forbes devoted to providing anxious managers with tips on motivating volatile millennial workers, it seems as though every square inch of available newsprint is devoted towards profiling us and the effect that we’re having on the world.

While much of this attention is simple filler, designed to suck in alarmist readers, there is a certain truth to the claim that my generation is having a powerful effect on the business world. One need only look at recent news to understand this simple fact. On June 19, Men’s Wearhouse fired its CEO, founder, and pitchman, George Zimmer, for, among other things, failing to connect well with Millennials, signaling that the hype regarding our generation has reached the highest echelons of corporate power.

Plainly, businesses are concerned over the effect that we are having on the world, now that our social role has grown. As the generation that is best versed in the technology that has begun to drive large portions of the American economy, the Millennials have indeed become the impetus for many drastic economic changes.

Nowhere is this more evident that the automotive sphere. Panic-stricken articles from various industry pundits have become commonplace, often questioning whether our generation has completely rejected not only car culture, but also the car itself. The answer?

Not even close.

Upon initial inspection, it seems that carmakers do have reason to feel nervous. A study performed by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute shows that, in 2010, roughly one quarter of Americans ages 16 to 34 didn’t have driver’s licenses, the highest percentage in recorded history.

However, this certainly doesn’t mean that we’ve decided to abandon the car en masse.

America’s preferences regarding personal and public transport have shifted drastically over the last decade. Rising fuel prices, combined with a severe economic downturn and increasing urbanization have seen an incredible uptick in transportation alternatives. According to a study commissioned by the US Public Interest Research Group, young people living in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 from 2001 to 2009 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent and walking by 37 percent.

Despite the proclamations of doom made by many commentators, this in no way precludes the death of car culture. Just look at Europe. The American public transport system is laughably deficient by the standards of almost every other nation that has discovered things like electricity and the polio vaccine. If you live in any major European city, there is a good chance that you spent a very limited amount of time behind the wheel each week. But somehow that hasn’t diminished car culture at all. The UK, this nation of thriving public transport, is also currently providing television markets the world over with Top Gear, not only the world’s most popular motoring show, but one of its most popular shows period.

It’s true that many members of our generation view the car in a completely different light than our forbearers. But rather than viewing them as anachronisms left in the way of our meteoric cultural expansion by the retirees of yesteryear, the differences are a bit simpler. For example, when my grandfather first got his driver’s license, the price of gas was not a concern to him. It’s absolutely a concern to me. But it was also a concern to my aunts and uncles, who were sitting in driver’s education classes in the height of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.

These concerns are not unique.

The reality is, cars are everything that they’ve ever been to the young people of America, and no amount of media hype can change that simple fact. I will never forget the day when my friend passed his driving test and excitedly came back from the Department of Motor Vehicles, bearing that small plastic card that gave him the right to operate a car independently of his terrified parents. As one of the youngest members of my immediate social group, I was in complete awe of the freedom that would now surely define my friend’s social life. I was convinced that by the time the rest of us passed our tests, we would be beating back legions of adoring girls. I forced myself to sit through my painfully tedious driver’s education classes by rationalizing that every impossibly dull 45-minute lecture on proper turn signaling was another step on my road to becoming Steve McQueen. When my friend received a Toyota Prius from his parents, I was so impressed that I forgot to viciously mock their choice of automobile.

As a teenager, I never viewed cars as simple ways of getting from A to B. They represented a chance to go out into the world and seize some independence. At its core, this is the essence of American car culture.

What so many critics don’t seem to understand is that we don’t care if we’re driving hybrids, pinup sports cars, or old beaters; and despite what the rose-tinted media reports, recalling the car culture of generations past would have you believe nobody ever has.

The dirty little secret of car culture is that what you’re driving doesn’t matter nearly as much as the act of driving in itself.

While we may change the cars that we drive and the role that they play in our everyday lives, the culture surrounding cars isn’t going to diminish anytime soon.

Detroit can rest easy.

[Sources: U.S. PIRG, USA Today, Forbes, Huffington Post, Time]