Automotive Apathy: Have Youth Fallen Out of Love with Cars?

When I was growing up, I loved to watch Starsky and Hutch in their red and white Ford Gran Torino catching bad guys using the signature hood slide with really bad hair.  Okay, Burt Reynolds was a bit cheesey (killer ‘stache though), but hey had an awesome Pontiac Firebird that I still threaten my wife I will roll home in one day.  Then there were those darn Duke boys and the General Lee, a custom painted Dodge Charger that performed impossible stunts every Friday night.  Oh and we had the technology too.  The Terminator, the Matrix, and the Transformers had nothing on KITT  the super cool high tech Pontiac Trans Am from Knight Industries.  What about the Road Warrior’s wicked-cool Down Under spec Ford Falcon as the last of the V8 inceptors.  I would give my eye teeth for that nitrous super charger now and again.  And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mentioned Mr.Bond’s beautiful sleek DB5 from Goldfinger.  The stars of these shows were as much the vehicles they drove as the actors themselves.

What happened?  With the exception of Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious series and some nicely appointed Land Rovers and Cadillacs on reality television shows, you just don’t see cars that much anymore.  Have young people fallen out of love with car culture?  Pulling from NVCS, a study of new car and truck owners we have been conducting for more than 40 years, would suggest that perhaps they take a more utilitarian attitude toward their rides.

We asked new car buyers how much they agreed with the statement “To me, cars are simply a form of transportation” for the last 16 years.  As you can see below, about 27% of those under 25 said they regard their new vehicle as “simply transportation” in 1998 (the first year we asked the question).  Fast forward to 2013 and that number increases to 36% disaffected for that same group.  The same pattern can be found for those in the 25-30 group, but then tends to flatten a bit as we move into those  36 and beyond.  This indicates that people “falling in love with their cars” is on the decline among these younger age groups. Moreover, the flattening pattern in later age groups  (36+) would suggest a cohort effect, meaning that as the current late Gen Xers and Millennials get older they may bring that pragmatic attitude with them.   How dull.

youthgraph

What happened?  Did we lose young people in the 90’s by making practical but boring cars?  Did we fail to inspire?  Hybrid vehicles hardly make the heart throb, so maybe, but I think it is something much societally bigger.  This age group just doesn’t care about cars.

We live in age where younger folks are living longer with their parents, putting off getting a drivers license, putting off (or never) getting married, putting off having kids, putting off getting an education, and putting off getting a career.  As an early Gen Xer myself, I can say my late Gen Xer and Millenial brethren are not all a bunch of entitlement obsessed ‘slackers’ who want something for nothing.  This generation has seen some pretty unsettling economic cratering of their once prosperous Boomer parents recently. Perhaps it’s made them a bit nervous, conservative, and well…pragmatic.

Moreover, amazing technology surround them with product lifecycles of a few months, not the 3-8 years of the automotive industry. It’s always new and always exciting.  And guess what, a lot of the stuff they use is free or practically free.  Free music, free movies, free games, and other cheap entertainment abounds.

Moreover, will cars give way the same as trains?  Are we even in the car business anymore? Should we be thinking that way?  Zipcar and other car sharing schemes seem to be growing in interest and utilization.  Do you really need that giant SUV with 4×4 all the time, or just to go snowboarding?

Can we make kids fall in love with cars again?  I’m not sure.  A philosopher once said you can never step into the same stream twice.  Perhaps the automotive industry needs to find new streams to step into.  What do you think?