In the past couple years, there have been a conversation about a trend of declining interest in automobiles by the young adult generation. I define young adults as ages between 18 and 34: what others have labeled as millennials. Evidence of declining interest is the reduced occurrences per 1000 persons of car sales, car registrations, and even driver’s licenses.
A quick search revealed some articles but none that really captured the sense of reading all of them. The general sense is that the trend appears to be real. Although there are a lot of theories, nearly all of them place blame somehow on the individuals: the economy is bad so they can’t afford it, they are delaying adulthood (whatever that means), or they are more interested in social media (empowered by smartphones).
Approaching 54 years, I have no claim to belong to this generation. But this is something I can relate to. I avoided cars for nearly all of my youth. I went though an away-from-home college deliberately making the best of a bicycle for everything except for trips home that involved a greyhound bus that dropped me off on the highway about 2 miles from home at 1am in the morning, then at least once I walked carrying my luggage. I did buy a car when I had my first job, but I ended up moving to an apartment closer to work and ended up walking most days, not using the car so much that I just sold it. After that, I didn’t own a car nor drove one until I was well past the “young adult” phase. I did keep my drivers license current, but only because I only had to renew it. I probably would not have bothered to get one otherwise.
In short, I find it curious that there may be a growing trend of some young people to not find cars worth the bother.
What motivated this post was the thought of comparing today with a half-century ago (when I was a child). At that time, cars have been around for a half century. However, the demand for cars really skyrocketed in the previous 15 years (sometimes described as “after the second world war”). Among the zillion things that changed during that period was the rapid building of reliable roads that could support large number of cars driving at high speeds. Cars also improved to take advantage of the now-available roads.
Of course, cars delivered benefits in terms of increased mobility, freedom of movement, and ability to routinely carry large cargoes. Cars also allowed people to make independent the choices of where to live, where to work, and where to shop.
A half century ago, we were sounded by a sense of excitement about the magical moment when everything just came together, almost magically. The cars were faster, bigger, and more affordable. The roads were smooth and went everywhere. New opportunities arrived allowing us to own property with large yards adjacent to like-minded neighbors. Large malls with a wealth of purchasing options under one roof became available. New vacation and weekend get-away opportunities appeared. Everything was occurring at the same time to define a whole world view or culture of everyone living at that time, but especially for the young adult generation.
All of this remains true today and to a large part we continue to enjoy these in the same ways. Cars are far more safe, reliable, and fuel efficient. Our vehicles of choice have moved more toward larger more multi-purpose SUVs but without a loss in safety, reliability, and speed. On the downside, the roads are more congested and many roads and bridges are getting pretty old. Fuel is more expensive. But overall, the utility of cars is about the same as before.
The thing that changed is that cars no longer define the exciting part of our culture.
Now the excitement is exemplified by the smartphone. To say this is to trivialize a broader reality. The smartphone is to the current age as the car was to the age 50 years ago. Just like cars, smart phones are merely the part that involves a personal purchase.
50 years ago the motivation for cars was driven not by the availability of cars but by the possibilities made available by prior investment in roads, real estate, shopping centers, and vacation locations. Today, the motivation for smart phones is made available by the investments in computers, data centers, and especially data networks with global reach at high data rates.
50 years ago, part of the appeal of cars was the sense of a generation figuring out new ways to exploit the new possibilities. To explore new ways of living that would set them apart from their ancestors. The same kind of excitement now centers around the smartphone.
Certainly the fascination of the new technologies is stealing attention from automobiles. Automobiles are still useful and often still unavoidable. Automobiles lost the spotlight of popular fascination. They just are not as interesting as they once were.
New technologies are increasingly challenging the utility of personal automobiles. Online shopping is increasing in popularity and in breadth to the point where there is increasing interest in online purchases for basic staples such as household items and food. Home delivery is rapidly improving (from both infrastructure investment and the data technology improvements) to the point where same-day delivery is becoming reality. Teleworking is becoming more common and encouraged by employers for improving staff-retention and reducing their real-estate costs for office space and parking lots.
Much more importantly, the global light-speed reach of the new technology puts automobiles to shame. A car can carry only so many people, can only travel at highway speeds, and can only go to one destination at a time.
A smartphone can within seconds show the entire world that some government is brutally attacking a crowd of protesters. A smartphone can show the world that the official media’s depiction of counter protests are exaggerated. Smartphones can change the world in entirely new ways than previously possible.
On the other hand, the utility of cars are increasingly vulnerable. Roads can can become easily impassible due to traffic jams, snowstorms or floods, or political protests. Alternatively is the example of the aftermath of super-storm Sandy where long-term power outage left gas stations unable to pump gas leaving a large number of car owners with empty gas tanks. We learned about it from first hand accounts captured by personal electronics transmitted by internet where a connection was available: often a smartphone.
The new technologies have their own vulnerabilities. But even here, the development and deployment of fixes is far faster than solving the problems facing automobiles.
Some warn of doomsday scenarios of new technologies, but in the 1960s there were no lack of “end of civilization” scenarios made possible by automobiles. Perhaps we just got lucky with the automobiles, the tipping point never happened. Perhaps we won’t be so lucky with the focus on the new technologies.
The new technologies are defining the future. As a result, they are inescapable. Coincidentally, they are also degrading the personal automobile’s relevance for the future.
I am not surprised that more young adults aren’t interested in cars.